Maxime Bernier quit the Conservative party last week, at the precise moment that Conservatives from across the country were gathering in Halifax for their national convention, preparing for the federal election that is 13 months away.
Canadian political history would suggest that the former cabinet minister’s departure and his promise to form a new federal political party will be little more than a footnote in the history books when all is written.
The ostensible point of division between Bernier, who came a very close second to Andrew Scheer in last year’s Conservative leadership contest, is supply management. Supply management is an agricultural policy that limits supply in an attempt to stabilize prices so that Canadian farmers can make a decent living. It’s the reason we pay what we do for cheese, milk and poultry and it is prefaced on the understanding that the few extra dollars we pay weekly keeps the agricultural sector viable.
Bernier, who lambasted his former party over the issue, is correct. Support for such meddling in the economy is antithetical to conservative economic values. But it is an oddly Canadian consensus by which parties across the spectrum essentially accede to the status quo for political, if not policy, reasons. Opponents of Bernier in last year’s leadership race expressed fears that his opposition to supply management would undermine the Conservatives precisely where they are most popular: in rural Canada.
If less interventionist economic policies become the basis for Bernier’s new political party, it is hard to imagine how it will catch fire among Canadian voters. From a political standpoint, such a platform seems like a loser from the gate.
But there is a potential wild card in this scenario. Though he skirted the subject during his news conference last week, Bernier’s recent social media statements play to xenophobic, anti-immigrant sentiments. This, far more than economics, has the potential to get the attention of Canadian voters.
The Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau likes to be associated with openness and a welcoming diversity, which contrasts nicely with developments to the south. But a recent poll suggests Canadians may not be as settled on this approach as some of us would like to believe.
The poll asked whether Canadians believed that there are too few, too many or the right number of immigrants to Canada. Overall, 18% of Canadians said there are too few immigrants coming to Canada, while 38% said there were too many and another 38% said the numbers were about right. The poll’s breakdown by party label indicates just how divisive this discussion could become. Only 12% of self-declared Liberals said that Canada has too many immigrants, while 73% of Conservatives hold that position.
Canadians, to an extent, have avoided opening a Pandora’s box in the form of a national discussion about immigration, perhaps happy in our complacency and self-image as a welcoming place. If Bernier’s new party – or, indeed, if the Conservatives – see an opening, we may be about to lift the lid somewhat on this issue.
If Bernier decides that he has nothing to lose and something to gain from upsetting accepted wisdom, it won’t necessarily prove a winning formula for his new party. However, if, by raising these topics, he forces other parties to articulate more specifically the generalized approach to multiculturalism and diversity that we take for granted, we may be headed for a reckoning on immigration, diversity and openness.
The election of Doug Ford as premier of Ontario suggests that populist messages are not anathema to Canadian voters. The Quebec provincial election, now underway, may very well provide a test case for some of these ideas that challenge our cherished notions of diversity.
When voter turnout hovers around the 50% mark, mobilizing one’s political base can be as crucial as convincing the undecided. If suspicion of outsiders appears likely to excite an identifiable core of the electorate, ambitious politicians will certainly consider how they might benefit by exploiting it.
Confronted by a heckler in Quebec last week, the prime minister shut her down by dismissing her as racist. It turns out, she may well be. But she also may not be the voice in the wilderness that some, including the prime minister, would like to believe. These people, too, will demand to be represented in Parliament and in the national discussion.
The rest of us, then, will need to have more than happy axioms and comforting self-satisfaction if we are to successfully defend diversity, inclusiveness and the social and economic value of new Canadians.