Can Canada Ward Off a Populist Surge? - 2019-10-02
LONDON, Ontario — On a hot day in early September, Maxime Bernier stood in line at a Booster Juice waiting for a smoothie. Bernier, who is 56 years old, looks tall in person. He has graying brown hair that flops to the right across his forehead, in an aging prep-school kind of way. In the student union building, at Ontario's Western University, he didn't look out of place. He might have been a business professor. He might have been someone's dad. He didn't, in other words, look much like what he is: Canada's patient zero for the kind of right-wing populism—shouty, nativist and outside the mainstream—that has remade politics all over the Western world.
Bernier was on campus that day drumming up support for his upstart populist movement, the People's Party of Canada, ahead of Canada's federal election, scheduled for October 21. Bernier, the party's founder, leader and only member of Parliament, was a senior Cabinet minister in Stephen Harper's Conservative government in the 2000s. He came within a hair of leading that party in 2017, before breaking away last year following months of public friction with the party brass over a very Canadian mix of issues, including dairy quotas and multiculturalism.
Since founding the People's Party, Bernier has been denounced as xenophobic, racist, egomaniacal and doomed. His chief strategist has deliberately positioned him in line with the anti-immigrant and climate-skeptic European new right. At an event over the summer, Bernier vowed to "build a fence" on Canada's southern border to keep out migrants. Unlike every other federal leader, he downplayed recently revealed photos and videos of Justin Trudeau in black- and brownface, calling the Canadian prime minister a hypocrite but not a racist. Online, Bernier has crafted a Twitter voice that apes, in two languages, the scream-'till-someone-pays-attention style of early Donald Trump. A week before the Western University event, he had launched a Twitter attack on the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, calling her, among other things, "mentally unstable."