GATINEAU, Que.—Kelly Day was warming up the crowd with a theme song she wrote for the People’s Party of Canada.
The song was heavy on the patriotism and libertarianism that Maxime Bernier’s upstart party says it stands for. PPC candidates and volunteers, purple lanyards around their necks and buttons on their chests, clapped and shouted encouragement.
“We stand beside the PPC and our liberty / The right side of history,” Day, the PPC’s candidate in Prince Albert, Sask., sang over the piano accompaniment.
“Maxime Bernier is championing personal integrity / Home is our country / Because we need to know who will stand / Canadians who love this land.”
But earlier Sunday afternoon, the 200 or so people in attendance at the PPC’s first national convention were hearing a very different tune. Benjamin Dichter — a former Conservative candidate in Toronto-Danforth and co-founder of LGBTory — was warning the crowd about “political Islam” and how it has infiltrated both Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party and Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.
“Despite what our corporate media and political leaders want to admit, Islamist entryism and the adaptation of political Islam is rotting away at our society like syphilis,” Dichter said
Dichter, who stood at Bernier’s side in a closing news conference, declined to say what he meant by “political Islam,” and instead recommended a book. Bernier also declined to explain what he thinks “political Islam” signifies. When asked if he subscribes to Dichter’s position, Bernier dodged the question before accusing Scheer of pandering to extremists for votes.
“It’s important to have that discussion (about “political Islam”) in Canada,” Bernier told reporters. “We are a party that’s open to everybody, everybody who shares our Canadian values . . . (“Political Islam”) can be a threat, yes, and we have to have that discussion in Canada right now.”
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A year after his dramatic split from the Conservative party and the formation of the PPC, Bernier still insists his fledgling political movement is all about individual liberty and personal responsibility. But somehow, the conversation around the PPC keeps going back to other topics, such as drastic cuts to immigration and doing away with Canada’s official multiculturalism.
The party said 500 people — candidates and party volunteers — attended the three-day conference at a hotel near the Casino du Lac-Leamy in Gatineau, just a short drive away from Parliament Hill.
Bernier welcomed the crowd to a windowless conference room at the hotel’s convention space Friday. The conference was largely closed to the public — party volunteers and candidates only. Many attendees dressed in purple and PPC swag, some of which was sold at a booth that also offered copies of a Preston Manning biography for $25.
But Islam and its relationship to Canadian politics was clearly on the mind of more than one conference attendee. Outside the conference room, on a terrace where a few attendees were taking a smoke break, Eric Brazau was explaining his views on the religion.
Brazau, who was convicted for inciting hatred against Muslims in 2014, acknowledged that some might find it ironic he said he was at the PPC convention to combat Islamophobia. But he said he’s turned over a new leaf.
When asked what fighting Islamophobia had to do with the PPC, Brazau said he wasn’t sure it had anything to do with it.
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“I’m just here as an observer,” Brazau told the Star.
It’s probable that the PPC would like to talk about something other than their attractiveness to far-right personalities, or the perception that their policies are anti-immigration. But it keeps coming up.
Bernier has already lost organizers in Vancouver and practically an entire electoral district association in Winnipeg over concerns his libertarian project was being hijacked by far-right voices. The Star has previously reported that far-right personalities have recommended their followers join the PPC to find a more mainstream avenue to promote their fringe beliefs.
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Bernier said told conference attendees that the PPC would campaign on their founding values: the principles of individual freedom and personal responsibility, fairness and respect. It was a line that was repeated, word for word, by another PPC candidate — suggesting it’s a central message the party hopes to tell Canadians in the upcoming election campaign.
But culture and identity are at the very top of the PPC’s platform. Bernier has pledged to end Canada’s official multiculturalism policy, cut annual immigration levels by more than half, and promote “Canadian values” and freedom of speech.
In his speech to the crowd, Bernier tied his project to the “growing populist option that is quickly taking its place in almost every western democracy.”
“For us there is no taboo subject. We are not afraid to tackle controversial issues. And we are speaking the truth,” Bernier said.
It’s that free-speech absolutism that attracted Sarah Chung to Bernier’s banners. Chung is running for the PPC in Markham-Unionville.
“We need to have more discussion and more debate … instead of shutting down people for their beliefs, shutting down their expression,” Chung told the Star on Sunday.
Chung immigrated to Canada from Malaysia as a student 26 years ago. When asked how she felt about Bernier’s proposal to cut immigration levels from roughly 350,000 to 150,000 per year, Chung said the party wants to focus on ensuring immigrants to Canada can find a job.
Chung and the 311 other nominated candidates face long odds. The PPC has polled between 0 and 5 per cent according to CBC’s compilation of public polling over the last month. Bernier’s most passionate support seems to live on message boards, blogs and YouTube channels. It’s an open question how that will manifest at ballot boxes.
Even if public polling is lowballing Bernier’s popular support, there is the further question of how concentrated that support is in individual ridings. While a party can poll at 5 per cent nationally, that doesn’t necessarily translate into enough votes to win a given riding in Canada’s first-past-the-post system.
But the 200 or so gathered near the Lac-Leamy casino Sunday are willing to roll the dice. They’ll see if their bet pays off in October.
Correction — Aug. 18: This article has been updated from a previous version that mistakenly said former Liberal minister Jane Philpott is running as an Independent in Markham-Unionville. In fact, she is running in Markham-Stouffville.