Maxime Bernier Maxime Bernier. Photo: Parti conservateur du Québec / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

The racist, anti-vaxx People’s Party of Canada being the only party to have made significant gains in the recent election is a warning for the left, argues John Clarke

In the recent Canadian federal election, the hard right and deeply racist People’s Party of Canada (PPC), increased its base of support considerably. The party is headed by former Tory MP and one time candidate for the leadership of that party, Maxime Bernier. A great deal of left social media commentary here has been quite smug and dismissive of the PPC, focusing on its failure to capture a single seat in Parliament for the second time since its formation in 2019. Yet, I would argue that this complacency is ill-advised.

The harsh reality is that the ugly political message of the PPC resonated among a large enough minority of voters that we should be deeply concerned. It’s share of the popular vote, a mere 1.6% in 2019, increased to 5%, reaching 7.6% in the province of Alberta. That means that the number of voters supporting them went from less than 300,000 to over 800,000. As the results came in, Bernier (often referred to as ‘Mad Max’) was fully aware of the significance of the upsurge of support for his party and the threat it poses to his more moderate rivals, “You know what I’m saying is powerful, and you don’t want us to be powerful,” he said. “But we will be.”

In positioning itself well to the right of the Tory Party and its leadership, the PPC has carved out a particular place for itself in Canadian politics and at a very dangerous time. It has become a gathering place, where those who have broken with mainstream conservatism but whose ideas are still in flux, can have political contact with those on the far right who have completed the journey. This became clear during the 2019 election, when Bernier, despite a public outcry, continued to make himself available for photo-ops with acknowledged fascists. He shrugged off criticisms of his conduct, even after the federal Minister of Public Safety condemned ‘Mr. Bernier’s attempt to legitimize this type of hatred.’

It isn’t hard to see why the white supremacist political fringe would see the PPC as a means of reaching a more mainstream audience. The party’s 2019 platform included ‘a promise to cut immigration and refugee numbers by as much as two thirds, after warning ‘extreme multiculturalism,’ will lead to ‘social conflicts and potentially violence.’ Bernier, moreover, played this racist card with persistence and determination, even ensuring that provocative billboards were erected across the country that declared, ‘Say NO to mass immigration,’ along with a call to vote for his party.

The PPC also made gains and consolidated its links with the far right by embracing climate denial and enthusiastically supporting a call for the building of oil and gas pipelines. When a very sinister fascist front group called ‘United We Roll,’ organised ‘a convoy of a couple hundred trucks’ that travelled from Alberta to the parliament in Ottawa to call for pipeline construction, Bernier was among those waiting to greet them.

Anti-vaxxer strategy

During this election, while the racism of the PPC was still very clear, it also vigorously supported the present wave of right wing coronavirus denial and opposition to vaccination as its best means of gaining political momentum. PPC support for anti-vaxxer protests helped to give them a focus and to grow in strength. Bernier made sure to address such events, including one particularly high profile demonstration in Calgary. Party members and supporters played a major role in such activities across the country, including disruptive protests that targeted hospitals and even blocked ambulances.

As a political representative of the neoliberal centre, Justin Trudeau is viewed by the far right as a globalist traitor. It is not surprising, then, that some of his campaign events were targeted by right wing protesters and PPC supporters were also very involved in this activity. One former party official was actually charged by the police over allegations that he threw gravel at Trudeau during a stop in London, Ontario. This combination of hard right policies and robust tactics has, once again, earned the PPC the admiration of fascists and white supremacists. Several such groups, including the Canadian Nationalistic Front, appealed to their supporters to vote for the PPC during the recent election.

The PPC, like others before it on the right, is building support by posing as an ‘anti-establishment’ movement. It presents itself as a radical alternative to a tired and corrupt political elite that includes the Conservative Party. During the campaign, perhaps a little intoxicated by his own populist fervour, Bernier sent out a tweet in defence of vaccine refusal that declared ‘When tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty.’

This brand of defiance that calculatedly sets itself apart from the political mainstream shouldn’t be underestimated for a moment. The PPC’s candidate in Oshawa, just to the east of Toronto, appeared to have been anything but demoralised over this failure to win a seat in parliament. A few days after the election, he staged a high profile anti-mask action in which he entered a local coffee shop and refused to cover his face. He declared this gesture to be a ‘sit-in against segregation’ and, shortly before carrying it out and being arrested, tweeted ‘It’s time for our Rosa Parks moment.’ As disgusting and offensive as this comparison certainly is, the issue here is that the PPC has a base that they understand well and they are playing to it with confidence.

The Tories tried and failed to unseat the Trudeau Liberals in the last election with a calculated move towards the political centre that they must have known would cause considerable discontent within their core reactionary base of support. Already, during the election, the lure of the PPC cost the Tories some parliamentary seats but the fact that their gamble failed now leaves them even more vulnerable in the face of a far bolder brand of right wing politics.

In truth, in comparison to the entire range of electoral alternatives in Canada, the PPC is the only party that is gaining ground to any significant extent. If it were able to increase its base of support in the next period to a degree comparable to that which it has achieved in its first two years of existence, it  would have a formidable base of support across Canada and a sizable presence in parliament. Were that to happen, it would represent a dire threat that no one would be able to shrug off.

The rapidly growing PPC is operating in a dangerous context of social and economic crisis that is likely to intensify. In these conditions, its racist and reactionary message is going to resonate. It functions as both a pole of attraction for those who are drawing conclusions to the right on mainstream conservatism and as a place of recruitment for fascists and white supremacists. As such it represents a serious danger to working class people and to communities who will face the racism it will promote and spread.

It’s enormously important that the PPC not be treated as if its plaform were a part of acceptable political discourse. Working class organisations need to take to the streets to confront it and take up the struggles that can pose an alternative to the toxic message of hatred coming from the horribly misnamed People’s Party of Canada.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.

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