At an anti-lockdown rally in June, Maxime Bernier, a former Canadian Conservative cabinet minister turned fringe far-right political figure, recieved the best thing to happen to him politically in years—he was arrested.
Bernier was attending a rally in the southern Manitoba village of St-Pierre-Jolys when he was put in handcuffs and forced into the back of an RCMP cruiser and was ticketed for not following public health orders. The rally was a small stop on his “Mad Max Freedom Tour” but a giant leap for Bernier: his arrest legitimized him in the eyes of the anti-lockdown crowd he’s been working so hard to court.
Bernier is clearly hoping to ride the momentum of the anti-lockdown movement to some semblance of political power.
The arrest also got him his most publicity in years; he was invited onto massive U.S. right-wing talk shows including Tucker Carlson Tonight, to chat about his plight and the "tyranny" Canadians were suffering through.
It's a subject he's still focused on. During a campaign-launch speech on August 15, Bernier made sure to quickly pander to the crowd.
“[Trudeau] wants to force all government employees and federal regulators and workers to take the vaccine. He wants to prevent non-vaccinated Canadians from travelling by air or train,” Bernier said early on in the speech. “He is working with provinces to develop a vaccine passport that will create two kinds of citizens, some with more rights than others under this government.”
“We are witnessing the most sustained, unprecedented series of frontal attacks against our prosperity, our rights, and freedoms in our lifetime.”
Bernier left the Conservative Party in 2018, after losing a leadership race by the narrowest of margins and being the centre of a few controversies. Following his departure, he formed the People’s Party of Canada and attempted to harness the populist sentiment on the right. His gambit failed miserably, and Bernier has floundered in a far-right fringe political no man's land where he’s been seen as a nuisance or a joke ever since.
In the spring, he turned to the anti-lockdown movement—possibly seeing the size of the crowds at its protests.
“The politicians got more involved in organizing their own (anti-mask) rallies in Ontario by late March of this year,” Drew, an anti-fascist who closely followed the anti-lockdown movement and didn’t want his last name used, told VICE World News. “After a winter of weak organizing from the movement as a whole, they were more effective than what remained of the old groups, and have pretty much dominated Ontario anti-lockdown protests since—until reopening, anyway.”
In response to a request for comment, PPC spokesman Martin Masse told VICE World News, “I don’t have time to waste helping you write more shit about us.”
The PPC has a full platform with multiple talking points typical to a right-wing party, like reducing immigration and creating a smaller government. However, if you look at the PPC candidates, they are all vocally, and in some cases almost solely, focused on vaccine passports (they’re against), vaccines (they’re anti), lockdowns, and, of course, Trudeau being in the pocket of the globalists. They know the hits with their audience and play them on repeat.
And for Bernier, at least to a small margin, the move seems to be working. The PPC is polling higher than last time around—between 4 to 6 percent, compared to 2 percent in 2019—slightly higher than the Green Party.
"The PPC is at double what they got in the last election, but still are marginal and not in a place where they're going to be winning a whole lot of seats with that vote share,” David Coletto, the CEO of the polling firm Abacus Data, told VICE World News. "Will Max Bernier form a government in Canada? Absolutely not. But could they be a nuisance and impact the actual result? I think they could."
The anti-lockdown movement has already affected the campaign trail, forcing Justin Trudeau’s Liberals to cancel an event due to wildly unruly protests over the weekend.
Bernier isn’t alone in this venture. Derek Sloan, another failed Conservative leadership candidate—who was unceremoniously booted from the Conservative Party after a bunch of controversies like receiving a donation from a well-known white supremacist, sponsoring anti-vaccine petitions, and asking if Canada's Chief Medical Officer Theresa Tam, who is of Chinese descent, worked "for Canada or for China—is attempting to ride a similar wave. Sloan, who attends many of the anti-lockdown rallies Bernier does, decided his far-right schtick doesn’t work well in Ontario—where he lives, is from, and represents as a member of Parliament—and decided to pack his bag and move to Alberta, start a new party, and attempt to be elected there.
If Sloan or Bernier and his candidates are to play any role in this election, it's most likely as a spoiler for some Conservative Party candidates, especially if they make vaccine passports or lockdowns a wedge issue.
“Here's a surprising statistic: 40 percent of CPC voters have a 2nd choice. Of those, over 70 percent pick the PPC,” tweeted pollster Frank Graves. “The reverse for PPC to CPC is much lower. The CPC have to be very wary of losing more if they cant too far to the center.”
The PPC says it’s attempting to run a national slate of candidates across the country. Candidates include Mark Friesen, a well-known organizer and figure in the “freedom movement” (he hosts a YouTube show and posts a lot about tyranny on Twitter); Marc Emery, a former cannabis activist who has been disgraced by sexual harassment allegations; and Viva Frei, a lawyer who has several hundred thousand followers on YouTube.
The slate is arguably more respectable than the candidates it ran in the previous election, which included Yellow Vest organizers and QAnon conspiracy theorists.
Like with other populist groups, PPC supporters are extremely active online. The party boasts rather good engagement on social media—PPC has trended several times on Twitter since the election began—but has yet to translate this to support in the real world. Few, if any, of their candidates gained any sort of real support in the last election. Friesen, a PPC candidate in Saskatoon and one of the PPC's higher-profile candidates, received a mere 1.64 percent of the vote in his riding in 2019.
It’s not just pollsters who think Bernier and his candidates are going to get roundly stomped in the election, but also some well-known anti-lockdown figures they are trying to woo.
Some anti-lockdown and anti-vax leaders view Bernier as a political opportunist and, possibly, a threat to their power in the community, and downright despise him. Chris Saccoccia, one of Canada’s most influential figures in the anti-lockdown movement, has had several run-ins with Bernier at anti-lockdown rallies. In one recently captured on video, Saccoccia, while speaking through a megaphone, can be seen telling Bernier off to his face for being a “globalist” and not a real “freedom fighter.” Bernier was roundly booed by the crowd as he walked away.
“Does it surprise me that a politician would try to ride the coattails of the genuine freedom movement, and try to transform it into his own (failed and irrelevant) political campaign? Absolutely not,” Saccoccia wrote to VICE World News in an email. “To me, Bernier is even more dangerous than Trudeau. At least we have seen his true colours.”
Saccoccia said that it wasn’t until the freedom movement was already fully up and running before Bernier decided to start making appearances. He worries that Bernier’s attempt to use the crowd to get votes could hurt the movement.
“A politician like Maxime comes along to play saviour and tells them, ‘Just give me your money and your vote,’” he said. “All of a sudden, the masses of people ready to act are now sitting back down on their couch waiting for an election he won't ever win.”
Some die-hards however have flipped on Saccoccia and believe he’s “controlled opposition” for his opposition to Bernier. A few far-right influencers have endorsed Bernier, not because they like him but because he’s the only right-wing alternative to the Conservative party who they see as in lockstep with “the globalists.”
On Telegram, a chat platform many of the anti-lockdown activists gravitate towards after their groups were booted from traditional social media platforms, support for Bernier seems widespread but the crowd doesn’t seem excited. “I honestly hate all of them but PPC is the best choice,” wrote one. “I know one man from Saskatoon with PPC, I have no doubt he is a true patriot but Max not so much,” wrote another.
However, as Coletto points out, while this group of hardline anti-lockdown activists may be loud it’s also small, so it’s important not to mistake the decibels for numbers. For Bernier, who famously hated his former party, that may not even be his primary goal.
"One of his probably key motivators for even doing this is to hurt the Conservatives, who he feels took away his leadership or treated him poorly after that,” said Coletto. "More like revenge than anything else."
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