If Maxime Bernier wins the Conservative Party leadership, he’ll inherit a party divided
When Maxime Bernier first entered Parliament, he could’ve hit the prime minister with a spitball.
The Quebecer, who entered government as the minister of industry, was just a few seats away from then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He, a lawyer, entrepreneur, and wonk, somehow waltzed into Parliament and, on day one, sat at the cool kids’ table.
Now, Bernier is on the cusp of taking control of Canada’s second-largest party, which has never been more rife with schisms and fracture. His job now is to pull together all those loose ends and hold them — something that he, black sheep of the Conservative Party, might not be all that cut out for.
Bernier’s ascension to Harper’s cabinet wasn’t entirely a lark. After all, the Conservative Party had barely snuck into power with a razor-thin minority in 2006. They won just 10 seats in Quebec, a province that had become a target for the prime minister for more seats.
“This is the first convention where we’re the normal ones.”
Of those 10, four got portfolio posts in the early days of the government. Of those, Bernier was the only real political neophyte. Being plucked from relative obscurity was no small feat — especially given that, just a year later, he was bumped up to minister of foreign affairs.
For those familiar with Bernier, what comes next is a tired story: a less-than-stellar performance for a foreign minister, and Bernier’s on-again-off-again relationship with Julie Couillard, who had launched her own security firm but who had previous links with organized crime. When it came to light that he had left sensitive NATO documents on her coffee table, Harper fired him.
Bernier was banished, in 2008, to forgotten benches of the House of Commons. His seat-mate was Michael Chong, who had kiboshed his own cabinet post by resigning in protest. In the seat in front of him was Mark Warawa, a noted social conservative with no real stature in the government. Bernier was effectively in exile.
At a leadership event at a blank, white-and-gray convention centre in suburban Toronto, near the airport, stuck next to a significantly more exciting anime convention, Bernier’s team seemed almost giddy with excitement.
Standing next to the raucous line for the open bar in one of his competitor’s hospitality suites, a prominent endorser for Bernier held court with a gaggle of eager young Conservatives, telling them:
“This is the first convention where we’re the normal ones.”
The social conservative cabal
Bernier spent years clawing his way back up the ladder. But while in the political wilderness, Harper’s Conservative Party began to fracture.
In 2013, Mark Warawa — the one sitting just ahead of Bernier — stood up and led a caucus mutiny.
The broad-shouldered, square-jawed Conservative wanted to introduce a motion to condemn sex-selective abortion. Warawa sat in an undercover cabal inside his party: The pro-life caucus.
As a unit, they pushed against their minders and babysitters in the prime minister’s office, disregarding the edict that abortion mustn’t cross the lips of any sitting member of the Conservative Party.
He and his cohort put the screws to their political masters — speaking at pro-life rallies; filing Parliamentary grievances against their own party, decrying censorship; introducing motions and bills to advance the pro-life cause.
Brad Trost, one of the club, bragged that he leveraged the pressure to have the prime minister drop funding for foreign abortion services. It was remarks like this that made Trost none-too-popular in the prime minister’s office.
It was a rare display of independence for the social conservatives in their unified Conservative Party, and the first real evidence that an unlikely political marriage may, one day, end in divorce.
As this schism within the party faithful was going on, Bernier was returning into Stephen Harper’s good graces. First, he was made minister of state for small business and tourism. In 2013, not long after Warawa’s revolt, he picked up agriculture. His seating assignment edged closer and closer to the seat of power, and away from the island of lost boys.
The Canada-first crowd
When plain-spoken Member of Parliament Larry Miller, in 2015, instructed niqab-wearing women to “stay the hell where you came from” when she protested his government’s ban on the face-covering at citizenship ceremonies, his party clutched their hair in dismay. Miller was contrite in his apology.
It was just one in a long line of gaffes and policies that made it hard for party, which had prided itself on outreach to immigrants and ethnic communities, to kick the image that it was a party of, and for, white men — “old stock Canadians,” as Harper would later infamously utter.
There were those in his party who worked tirelessly to fight that stereotype. Deepak Obhrai, born in Tanzania into a Hindu family, was first elected as a Reform Party MP in 1997 and saw his party morph from a Western protest party into a modern, centrist conservative party that managed to hold onto power for nearly a decade. That success was thanks in no small part to Obhrai and a phalanx of other diverse faces on the Conservative benches who contested the idea that the Liberal Party had a monopoly on the voice of Canada’s cultural communities.
But even then, the party pursued quixotic policies that endeared the base but genuinely offended the broadstream of Canadian politics.
Chris Alexander traded on his experience as ambassador to Afghanistan as cache in a government whose depth on foreign affairs matters sometimes came up short. (Bernier’s tenure as foreign affairs minister proved that.)
Kellie Leitch came in mid-way through the Harper era, and had neither allegiance to the progressive nor the reform Conservative crowds. She billed herself as modern, but pro-life.
It was fitting that she and Alexander were paired together to make a mid-campaign announcement that the government was set to launch a tip line for barbaric cultural practises, a perfect illustration of the cognitive dissonance between a party obsessed with reaching out beyond its traditional lilly-white base, but doing it in the most caustically counter-productive way imaginable.
The PC Club
The Harper government’s early days were tumultuous, at best.
He went through four foreign ministers in the first five years of his government, cycled through ministers of the environment almost yearly, and lost ministers like Chong and Bernier outright.
So it’s no great surprise that, over the years, once Harper found a minister he liked, he stuck with them.
Lisa Raitt is a prime example: An East Coast Progressive Conservative from suburbia Toronto with labor bona fides who represented the symbol of growth for the Conservative Party.
Yet, while serving as the tax minister, Raitt waded into a swamp of trouble by getting caught on tape calling government file involving cancer “sexy” and denigrating her cabinet colleagues. And, yet, Harper kept her in cabinet and even promoted her to labour minister.
But serving in the Harper cabinet wasn’t exactly a glorious job. The grind of helming a party that appeared set to burst at any time, underneath a leader whose obsessive top-down message control never truly let up — it grew tiresome.
The steady-handed moderates in the party all began to ride off in the sunset, one-by-one. Shelly Glover, John Baird, James Moore, Peter McKay. Some, like Leona Aglukkaq, lost their seats in ridings rubbed the wrong way by three consecutive Conservative governments. Rona Ambrose put in her hat for one last job before leaving politics.
One of the few trusted technocrats left was Raitt.
Madly off in all directions
When the Harper government was ousted in 2015, and the odds-on favourites to succeed him began to drop one-by-one, despair in the Conservative ranks began.
The eventual crowd that filed their registration papers did not inspire confidence amongst the party establishment, but it certainly energized different wings of the base.
If you were sitting in the back of the Gayety Theatre in Collingwood, you saw a dedicated crowd of old-and-new-stock Canadians, thrusting KELLIE signs into the air. One woman yelling “Canada first!” was easily audible over Kellie Leitch’s thin voice, even with the theatre’s sound system. Since that launch, her campaign has been lurching toward disparate policy points, working diligently — and, in the beginning, effectively — to gin up curious media coverage. But as the race wore on, so did patience for her increasingly bizarre efforts to copy-and-paste Donald Trump’s electoral playbook into Canada, from her tweeted threat at Canada’s sanctuary cities to her dogmatic defence of pepper spray, an unlikely dark horse became simply unlikely.
They are radical left-wing activists trying to deconstruct traditional social norms…”
It was the opposite, if you were sitting amongst the 40 enraptured supporters at Toronto’s Canada Christian College, where Brad Trost stood between two standing signs that bore his name. He ran as an unapologetic bannerman for some of the party’s most controversial and hardline position. He would defund abortion services, ramp up prosecutions for gun crime, return power to parents to pull their children from school if they feared education on sexuality and gender. And his Leave It To Beaver nostalgia worked well on the crowd and, indeed, it seems to be emulsifying into a voting bloc that can’t be ignored. Between Trost and fellow so-con Pierre Lemieux, the two began to register in the polls, boasted serious membership sign-ups, and dragged in a significant pot of cash. Neither will win in Saturday’s vote, nor are they likely to place in the top five, but their presence can’t be ignored. Lemieux’s speech on Friday night, decrying the liberal consensus on gay marriage and abortion, actually lit up the crowd in a way that other front-runners did not.
Sitting on the private box at the Bluma Appel Theatre in Toronto, overlooking the stage where the leadership contenders were going at it, the media began wondering if the party had made a mistake by giving the audience alcohol before the event. Boos, catcalls, raucous cheers all erupted from the crowd as they mocked and jeered at various candidates. But they actually quieted, and even applauded, when Lisa Raitt took the stage to follow Leitch, thundering “When I take my son to basketball, and I see a diverse sea of parents, I don’t want them to think that I expect them, as a Conservative, to write a test to prove to me how Canadian they are.” It was a loud, ringing endorsement of a reasonable wing of the party that had been oddly quiet and confusingly marginalized for the months-long contest.
It’s perhaps not surprising, given the field in front of the party members — and with a Kevin O’Leary-sized hole in the race — that Bernier is thoroughly in the lead, within a clear path to victory. He’s managed to dance in a lot of circles.
Pro-life, pro-gay, and generally socially progressive, Bernier turned heads as a different kind of conservative. Over the years, he had consistently voted to extend human rights protections to trans people, even as his party’s leadership counselled against it.
But as he struggled to elbow-out Leitch, and with the looming threat of Kevin O’Leary entering the race persisted — and as social conservatives began to flex some muscle in the race — Bernier took a sharp right turn.
“There has been a proliferation of groups that claim various sexual identities in recent years. Some of these groups are not fighting for equality of rights and respect for sexual minorities,” Bernier wrote on Facebook. “They are radical left-wing activists trying to deconstruct traditional social norms and impose their marginal perspective on everyone, including by forcing us to change the way we talk.”
He was announcing that he would not longer support transgender rights legislation. From there, he posed arm-in-arm with alt-right folk hero Jordan Peterson, and trumpeted an endorsement from hard right-wing Albertan politician Derek Fildebrandt, who was suspended from his party last year after a transphobic remark targeted at Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne was posted on his Facebook page, and seemingly endorsed by the MLA himself in a reply.*
On immigration, Bernier has also tipped his hat to Leitch. He vowed to cap immigration to Canada at roughly 250,000 — despite an economic consensus that Canada needs to expand its labour pool as birth rates decline — and to tool an immigration system towards the goal of preserving Canadian identity, whatever that may be.
“Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want,” as his official policy book reads.
What comes next
Bernier supporters, when asked whether they expect him to unify the party, shrug.
One Bernier booster, cornered at a pub where Erin O’Toole was glad-handing a mob of supporters — some of whom remain optimistic he could rally enough second-and-third-and-fourth-choice support to overcome Bernier, and others who admit he’s likely to come third — admitted that mugging for the social conservatives and the nationalists throughout the race may have been a mistake. Now those various wings of the party expect something from him.
But still others are honestly just worried about his grasp of policy. While his campaign was originally run as an unlikely eventuality, his campaign team may now be required to actually put those policies into action. One such policy, shredding the Canada Health Act, might prove toxically unpopular with the general public.
And long-time party faithful are concerned that he doesn’t have the depth of experience to pull it off. At the centre of his campaign is Kory Teneycke, the hard-headed former communications director for Harper who is reviled for his antagonistic approach to the media. Around him is a mix of mid-level Conservative staffers, relatively inexperienced young Conservatives, and former party interns.
Many who currently staff interim leader Rona Ambrose aren’t expected to stick around under Bernier’s party, and his supporters have already mused openly about cleaning house in the party, should they win. It’s not surprising that many of the central crowd to the party has backed either O’Toole or Andrew Scheer, the former speaker who has both social conservative chops but little of the baggage of his other candidates.
The unveiling of the votes on Saturday evening are sure to usher a new era in the Conservative Party. Whether the Conservative Party itself can survive Bernier remains to be seen.
*An earlier version of this story failed to note that the transphobic comment over which MLA Derek Fildebrandt was suspended was made by a constituent, and not by the MLA himself.