Maxime Bernier's People's Party of Canada gaining support in Sask.
Party has associations in nine of 14 ridings in the province
Maxime Bernier's Saskatchewan supporters say they're well on the way to hitting their leader's big goal for 2018.
When Bernier filed the Elections Canada paperwork seeking official party status for his new People's Party of Canada in early October, he told reporters he wants to set up associations for his new People's Party of Canada in all of the country's 338 federal ridings.
It was a big ask for a party that just got its name in September, only a month after Bernier shocked conservatives across Canada by announcing he'd be leaving the party to create his own.
Bernier told CBC previously he expected about 70 founding meetings to have been held by now.
Saskatchewan already has nine out of 14 set up, including one in each of the six combined ridings in Saskatoon and Regina. Efforts are underway all of the remaining ridings.
Rural areas are lagging behind, according to Ethan Erkiletian, who has been key in forming PPC riding associations in the province. All ridings are pending registration under Elections Canada.
The party claims to have signed up more than 22,477 members nationally but told CBC it won't be sharing regional membership statistics until November at the earliest. South Saskatchewan PPC field organizer Nigel Sharp said Regina's biggest riding association has nearly 100 members right now.
With Bernier's headquarters in Gatineau, QC housing only four paid PPC staffers, the heavy lifting — and credit for membership growth — lands on the shoulders of Bernier's loyal supporters, most of whom supported his failed Conservative leadership bid.
The Saskatoon-University riding has been a hotbed of PPC activity in the province. A newly-formed PPC club at the University of Saskatchewan is hosting an information panel on Thursday night to discuss the policies that Bernier is proposing.
'I've never felt this way about politics'
Saskatoon accountant Cody Payant spends 30 to 40 hours a week attending PPC meetings, organizing, recruiting and promoting the party in Saskatoon-University.
"Literally when I'm not at work I'm going full steam ahead," he said.
Payant's urgency is born from a sense of excitement that came the second Bernier left the Conservative Party after losing the leadership race to Andrew Scheer. Payant said he and many early PPC adopters lost faith in the Conservative Party even before Bernier's defeat.
When Bernier left the Conservatives he called the party "morally and intellectually corrupt." Payant said Bernier now represents a return to old Conservative values.
Mesa Komarevich, treasurer of the U of S's PPC club, said the party gives supporters something to rally behind instead of feeling forced to pick between the "lesser of two evils."
Many, including Sharp in Regina, are drawn to Bernier's anti-establishment attitude.
"I want bold ideas and I want somebody I can trust," Sharp said.
Bernier's party advocates smaller government, lower taxes and a reduction in immigration to Canada.
This position is arguably what's fueling racist parties everywhere else in the world so how is that not something that they're thinking about here? And I think they have to defend that.- Charles Smith, associate prof in political science, St. Thomas More College
Payant said Bernier's leadership makes him feel proud to be Canadian.
"Just talking about it now I get chills. I've never felt this way about politics in my entire life," he said.
"I feel hopeful, and I think a lot of Canadians feel hopeful as well that there are other Canadians like me and everyone else who have their back."
Payant was the first in Saskatchewan to publicly state his intent to run for candidacy with the party. His riding was ground zero for organizing efforts that have since branched out to the rest of the province.
For now, Saskatoon-University remains the core.
"That's where our groundswell of support is up here. All of this, remember, is quite spontaneous and quite self-actualized. So as we've seen support spring up it's really just completely self-motivated," Erkiletian said.
Few women were involved in the main Facebook page for building up the PPC in Saskatchewan but Payant and others said some of the women who are involved are quite active.
Much support in Saskatoon-University comes from 18 to 35-year-olds, said Payant. He's critical of baby boomers who are concerned about splitting the conservative vote.
Regina has more diversity in age, Sharp noted. One new member is Victor Lau, a former Saskatchewan Green Party leader. He said he's "shopping parties" right now and was impressed by the different people that are looking into what the party stands for.
Life on the ground floor has its perks.
"I can't recall ever having been able to simply access the party leader of a large political party just by firing off a message and asking to schedule a phone call. That's pretty unique," Erkiletian said.
"The answers [from Bernier] are all very unapologetic and real."
Controversy on multiculturalism
Bernier has made headlines for his comments on diversity and refugees, most notably in August when he tweeted asking where to draw the line on diversity in Canada.
3/ But why should we promote ever more diversity? If anything and everything is Canadian, does being Canadian mean something? Shouldn’t we emphasize our cultural traditions, what we have built and have in common, what makes us different from other cultures and societies?—@MaximeBernier
Bernier would like to drop immigration levels down to Harper era numbers, around 90,000 less than current projections for 2020. Another August tweet elaborated on that:
1/ Our immigration policy should not aim to forcibly change the cultural character and social fabric of Canada, as radical proponents of multiculturalism want. Of course, society is transformed by immigration. But this has to be done organically and gradually.—@MaximeBernier
He said too much immigration becomes a burden to Canadians.
Charles Smith, associate political science professor at the U of S's St. Thomas More College, has been eyeing those tweets closely. He said it echoes far-right populist movements in Brazil, France, Scandinavian countries and the United States.
"This position is arguably what's fueling racist parties everywhere else in the world so how is that not something that they're thinking about here? And I think they have to defend that," he said.
Erkiletian said people online have called him everything from xenophobe to a white supremacist.
"When you do draw yourself into the public debate people will resort to these tactics, especially if you are part of a movement such as Maxime Bernier's which is trying to speak openly and honestly about issues of contention," he said.
Payant said they're not racist, they're just not willing to pander to people, something he and Bernier say Trudeau does.
Everyone joining the PPC's riding associations are signing a pledge to "not say anything embarrassing to the party," Sharp said. He takes that to mean people are not to deviate from Bernier's platform, or to push things further by, for example, advocating for deportations of specific races.
The past few years in Saskatchewan have pulled at race relations, particularly with Indigenous people. Smith said the PPC will not have a good impact on the healing, inclusion and respect needed to move ahead.
Bernier tweeted the following in August on a story about creating a statutory holiday to mark the residential school legacy:
Why not celebrate instead the heritage and renewal of aboriginal cultures? That would unite us in positive way. Cult of victimhood and obsession with past wrongs instead of focus on the progress made and to come are another sick characteristic of extreme PC and multiculturalism. <a href="https://t.co/hldfw6dUw7">https://t.co/hldfw6dUw7</a>—@MaximeBernier
Sharp is optimistic that Bernier is developing policy relating to First Nations and Métis people, based on comments Bernier made at a meet and greet in Ottawa in September.
"I think it's important, based on property rights on reserves. And so we need to have something different, I'm working on that," Bernier said in the video.
While the PPC seems to be gaining some support in Saskatchewan, Smith questions whether there's enough of an appetite in Canada for a party with far-right libertarian ideals. By his estimation, the PPC is capitalizing on a "generic anger" that tends to flame out as mainstream political parties respond.
The PPC in Saskatoon-University won't be recruiting Brad Trost, the Conservative MP who lost his last nomination and will no longer be running for that party in the next election. He told CBC he will not be involved with the PPC.
Payant is one of the few who has started door-knocking and Erkiletian said he's just received a letter from Elections Canada to confirm that he is a party member. It takes 250 confirmed members to officially be declared a party.
For now, members are willingly taking on expenses like booking meeting rooms and travel with no promise of being reimbursed until the party is official.
with files from Eric Grenier and Andreanne Apablaza