Analysis

From the dustbin of history, a warning for Max Bernier

Will Maxime Bernier follow in the footsteps of another former Conservative cabinet minister who formed a new party and contributed to his old party's defeat?

There's precedent for Bernier's gamble on a new political party - and it isn't promising

On Friday, former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier announced the creation of the People's Party of Canada. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

He was a former Conservative cabinet minister who formed his own party and, in the process, contributed to his old party's defeat.

No, this isn't Maxime Bernier's story — not yet, at any rate. It's the story of Henry Herbert Stevens and the Reconstruction Party, a story few remember now. But the parallels with Bernier and his new People's Party are striking.

As he announced the birth of the People's Party of Canada ​at a news conference in Ottawa on Friday, Bernier, the runner-up in last year's Conservative leadership race, called his new project "unique in Canada."

It isn't. There's no shortage of historical comparisons to look to for guidance on what to expect from Bernier. Some of the more obvious ones, as it turns out, fall short on closer inspection.

Preston Manning, who split the conservative vote when he created the Reform Party in 1987, had always been an outsider.

Lucien Bouchard, a cabinet minister in Brian Mulroney's government who gutted the Progressive Conservatives in Quebec when he formed the Bloc Québécois in 1991, broke away from the PCs in the peculiar context of the failure of the Meech Lake Accord. The party he created was merely the federal expression of a sovereignty movement that already existed.

And Belinda Stronach, who finished second in the 2004 Conservative leadership race before crossing the floor to the Liberals, had no significant support base and, more importantly, did not start her own party.

Henry Herbert Stevens, however, checks all the boxes. And the story of the Reconstruction Party is one Bernier will have to avoid repeating if he doesn't want to end up right next to Stevens in the dustbin of Canadian political history.

Party like it's 1935

"He sees himself as a great popular hero, perhaps the leader of a Tory Party transmogrified into a radical outfit," wrote John W. Dafoe, editor of the Winnipeg Free Press.

As minister of trade and commerce in R.B. Bennett's Conservative government, Stevens gained notoriety in the early 1930s as chair of the Select Committee on Price Spreads and Mass Buying, which looked into allegations of abusive practices by big businesses.

With the country in the grips of the Great Depression, the committee received national attention and, as J.R.H. Wilbur wrote in a 1964 issue of the Canadian Historical Review, reporters were "justified in calling it the Stevens Committee. As chairman, Stevens dominated the hearings, usually selecting the witnesses and deciding what evidence would be stressed."

Caricatures of Conservative Prime Minister R.B. Bennett, Liberal Leader Mackenzie King and Reconstruction Party Leader Henry Herbert Stevens in the Lethbridge Herald, Oct. 15, 1935. (Lethbridge Herald)

Stevens wanted his Conservatives to adopt a more interventionist economic policy in order to support small businesses, farmers and workers, policies that went further than Bennett was prepared to go. A bitter personal rivalry between the two, and Stevens's persistence in pushing his own views, eventually led to the B.C. MP being excluded from caucus. He then started his own party — the Reconstruction Party.

Under Stevens, the Reconstructionists would, in Wilbur's words, establish a "public works programme, a [commission] to act as referee in all commercial and industrial disputes, an economic council 'to solve the monetary problems', and an agricultural board to control and direct marketing of farm products." Taxes on higher incomes would be increased and the national debt paid off by exploiting the country's natural resources.

Wilbur called it a "Canadian version of Roosevelt's New Deal." Like Bernier's People's Party, its platform had a strong populist bent. Unlike the PP, however, its platform took Stevens to the left of the Conservatives, rather than to the right.

'Treachery is an unforgivable sin'

The reaction to Stevens's move was swift.

Bennett called it the "Deconstruction Party, a new-fangled movement conceived out of reckless personal ambition, with no idea of ever forming a government."

"A Prime Minister can be accommodated to any type of colleague," he wrote in a letter, "but there is a limit beyond which tolerance can go. Ignorance can be excused, but treachery is an unforgivable sin in the conduct of government."

The opposition Liberals led by Mackenzie King took delight in the split. King himself worked to widen it by reminding Conservatives of the discord between Stevens and Bennett at every opportunity. He said that the Reconstruction Party had emerged "from a personal feud between [them] and the fact that Stevens was not asked to lead the [Conservatives].

"That's a mighty poor basis on which to form a party."

Pre-election struggles

As the 1935 election approached, Stevens began the difficult process of building a new party from scratch. He got some positive reception in a few local Conservative associations, picking up a riding president here and a Conservative incumbent there.

But money was an issue. The party's attacks on big business robbed it of one of the key sources of election funding at the time. One estimate put the party's fundraising at about $33,000 coming in "dribs and drabs" — a piddling amount compared to what its opponents were spending. Stevens wrote in a letter that two Conservative candidates were said to be spending more in their own ridings than the Reconstruction Party would spend nationwide.

Though Stevens was able to recruit candidates in more than two-thirds of Canada's ridings, his team — with only a few individual exceptions — was short on political experience. They would remain that way after the votes were counted.

'Not an election; it was a massacre'

After casting their ballots on Oct. 14, 1935, voters gathered outside newspaper offices or around their radios to hear the results of the election.

(The radio coverage, by the way, was an innovation that not everyone welcomed. "The new-fangled radios have taken all the kick out of election night," said one member of the crowd waiting outside the Globe's Toronto offices. "People sit at home nowadays and hear the returns in their own front rooms, instead of coming downtown. I've seen the day when it took a man an hour and a half to get from Front Street up to King. People took their elections seriously in those days.")

Wherever they congregated, Canadians quickly learned that they had elected a new government and that King's Liberals — who had governed from 1921 to 1930 — were back in power.

"The Bennett Government, which has ruled Canada for the last five years, was wiped out in today's voting" wrote William Marchington in the Globe.

"It was not an election; it was a massacre."

The headline in The Globe on Oct. 15, 1935, following the defeat of R.B. Bennett's Conservative government. (The Globe and Mail)

The Liberals under King won 171 seats and 45 per cent of the vote, the biggest majority government the country had yet seen. The Conservatives lost nearly a hundred seats, winning in just 39 ridings and taking only 30 per cent of the vote. Compared to the 1930 election, Conservative support had plummeted by 18 percentage points.

Stevens and the Reconstruction Party could be blamed for half of those losses, taking nine per cent of the vote. But the only Reconstruction candidate elected was Stevens himself in his B.C. riding of Kootenay East.

"What had happened to the Reconstruction party?" asked the Toronto Daily Star. "We hadn't seen anything of it. The situation was becoming embarrassing. Then Stevens was announced as the sole survivor. A one-man party.

"'Well,' said the lady next to us with a three-year-old kid perched on her shoulders, 'ain't that something.'"

Splitting the vote, 1930s-style

"Mr. Stevens created his party, drafted its platform, chose its leader and succeeded in electing himself — and no one else," wrote an editorialist in the Lethbridge Herald after the voting was over.

Stevens did have a significant impact on the 1935 election — not quite the one he had in mind, however. By splitting the vote with Bennett's Conservatives while King's Liberals did no better in the popular vote than they did in 1930, Stevens contributed to King's landslide. Robert Manion, who would lead the Conservatives into the next election, said that Stevens' "treason cost us thirty or forty seats."

According to Wilbur, in as many as 62 ridings "the combined Tory and Reconstruction vote would have defeated the successful Liberal candidates." That would have been enough to keep King to a minority government.

"In destroying for the time being the Conservative Party," said former prime minister Robert Borden, "[Stevens] has thoroughly eliminated himself."

After the 1935 election, the Conservatives would languish on the opposition benches for another 22 years. Stevens would eventually return to the Conservative fold and even run for the party leadership in 1942. He finished last.

Will Bernier's party be more than a one-man show?

Already, there are reasons to believe that Bernier could be following in the footsteps of Stevens's failed bid for power.

Notably absent from Bernier's announcement on Friday was a list of prominent figures lining up to be candidates for his new party. He may also lack the resources needed to mount a serious campaign in 2019.

On Friday, Bernier claimed that he had raised $140,000 in the three weeks after he announced he was leaving the Conservatives. That's an impressive sum, considering he has no party organization behind him. Spread out over a full year, however, that would put his fundraising at about $2.4 million — about an eighth of what the Conservative Party raised in 2017 and a little less than half of the NDP's fundraising total.

So Bernier has some work to do to shun the fate of Stevens and his Reconstructionists 83 years ago — to avoid launching a new party that cripples the one he abandoned, only to end up sinking without a trace.

About the Author

Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.