Are the Conservatives worried about the People's Party of Canada — or should they be?
Bernier and his 311 candidates are hoping for a 'purple wave'
As Conservatives enter the home stretch of the federal election campaign with polls putting them in a close fight against the Liberals, should they sweat about what's on their political right?
People's Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier would like to think so.
The former Conservative has attacked the Tories' current leadership as phony while hitching his populist horse to anti-lockdown movements across the country and railing against government-imposed vaccine mandates and passports.
And although the PPC remains far behind the Conservatives at about four per cent of popular support in public opinion polls, Bernier and his 311 candidates are hoping for a "purple wave" of Tory supporters and others switching their votes on Sept. 20.
Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole, during a recent campaign stop in the Greater Toronto Area, sidestepped a question about Bernier and the PPC, and instead touted his party as best placed to jump-start Canada's post-pandemic economic recovery.
Others such as Canada Proud have been more direct. The registered third-party advertiser, whose stated aim is to defeat Justin Trudeau's Liberals, has stepped up warnings about a vote split on the right.
Social media push
The organization led by Jeff Ballingall, who served as digital director of O'Toole's 2020 leadership race, has been pushing out memes and social-media videos to get its message across.
That online effort has coincided with growing realizations about the extent to which social media has been feeding anti-vaccine and anti-Trudeau sentiments among segments of the Canadian population.
One Canada Proud post includes a smiling photo of the Liberal leader captioned: "Trudeau when he finds out you're voting PPC." A second photo below depicts him wide-eyed with the caption: "Trudeau when he finds out you're voting Conservative."
"Like it or not, if we split the vote, Trudeau wins again," says an accompanying post. "If you're voting for PPC, you're voting for Trudeau," reads another.
Saying some of those supporting the PPC are opposed to Trudeau would be an understatement, as people toting the party's signs have been among the throng of angry protesters who have hurled obscenities at the Liberal leader at campaign events.
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The PPC also removed the president of its Elgin–Middlesex–London riding association last week after he was accused of throwing gravel at Trudeau during an event in London, Ont.
Police in the southwestern Ontario city announced on Saturday they had charged Shane Marshall in the incident. The suspect shares the name of the former PPC riding association president, but the party did not immediately respond to request for comment on whether the man now facing charges is the same person.
Ballingall said in an interview that many people opposed to Trudeau and the Liberals feel alienated from Canada's current political process, and may want to vote for the PPC as a protest against the establishment.
"They want to vote for PPC as a protest vote, they want to get rid of Trudeau, but you can't have both," he said. "You can't protest and also get rid of Trudeau. It's not a perfect scenario. It's a binary choice."
Yet it isn't only disenfranchised Canadians who are supporting the PPC, as Bernier has managed to tap into anger over mandatory vaccinations and vaccine passports, a population that political strategist Shakir Chambers says includes non-Conservatives.
"They occupy such a unique space in this election," said Chambers, who helped Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives win the 2018 provincial election in Ontario.
"They're saying we should have a conversation about these things. No other party's saying that you can even converse about whether this should be mandatory or not."
O'Toole's vaccine stand has stoked anger
O'Toole has tried to walk a fine line when it comes to vaccines, saying on the one hand that Canadians should get immunized to curb the spread of COVID-19 and protect vulnerable citizens while on the other defending the freedom to choose not to do so.
That mixed message has put some of his Conservative candidates in a bind when it comes to explaining where the party stands on the issue, including in the Western heartland of Saskatchewan and Alberta where the party remains dominant.
"You can read our platform ... It's very different from the Liberal platform," incumbent Alberta MP Garnett Genuis wrote in a recent Facebook comment.
"I understand not agreeing with the party on everything. Honestly, I don't agree with the party on everything. But our party is against mandatory vaccination, and is the only viable alternative to Justin Trudeau."
WATCH | Conservative leader is asked about the rising support in polls for the PPC
Arnold Viersen, another Alberta MP running for re-election, also weighed in.
"The Conservative party opposes mandatory vaccines and a Conservative government is the only way to block Trudeau from enforcing his," the candidate wrote.
The vaccine issue is only one in which O'Toole stoked anger among some on the right as he has tried to steer the Conservatives more to the centre. The Tory leader has acknowledged his plan to introduce a price on carbon is also unpopular with some.
O'Toole has defended that decision several times throughout the election in a bid to better connect with the majority of Canadians who, opinion polls suggest, want action on climate change.
"We've shown you that we are a new party," he said on Friday. "We are a changed party and we're here to earn your trust."
Chambers nonetheless believes vaccines more than O'Toole's more moderate views on climate change or abortion — the Conservative leader has said he supports a woman's right to choose — are what could drive unhappy Tories into the PPC's arms.