Maxime Bernier launched political career on family name, now looks to forge new party

After being tossed out of the federal cabinet by Steven Harper and off his party's front bench by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Maxime Bernier is striking out on his own to form a new conservative-minded federal party.

Tossed from the front bench by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Bernier strikes out on his own

Maxime Bernier arrives at the Conservative Party of Canada leadership convention in Toronto on May 27, 2017. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

After being tossed from his party's front bench by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and after weeks of controversial tweets that have led some in his own party to criticize him, Maxime Bernier is striking out on his own to form a new conservative-minded federal party. 

The free-market libertarian — once dubbed "the Albertan from Quebec" — says he plans to create a party that will deliver a laissez-faire platform promising to lower taxes, cut regulatory red tape, uphold civil rights and perhaps most notably, end supply management in Canada's dairy sector.

One of the first priorities for the MP from Beauce, Que., will be to meet with supporters in the next few weeks to gather a flock that will form the foundation for his new pan-Canadian conservative political machine. 

Then begins the challenging task of selecting candidates to run in 338 ridings across the country in time for the 2019 general election.

Bernier sees the economy as his prime battleground, and on Thursday said his starkly different plan, one based on conservative ideas, is what is required to stand up against the Liberals at the ballot box.

Bernier's decision to strike out on his own comes after four back-to-back majority wins in his own riding, where he pushed some policies that are wildly unpopular in other parts of his home province of Quebec.

Chief among them is his desire to scrap supply management in Canada's dairy sector. In a chapter of Bernier's unpublished book, parts of which were posted online, he argued that "fake Conservatives" joined the party during the leadership race just so they could cast a vote for Andrew Scheer, who supported supply management.

Fourteen candidates were vying to replace former Conservative leader Stephen Harper, with Scheer being chosen and Bernier placing a very close second.

End 'corporate welfare'

Canadians have yet to see a platform for Bernier's new political machine, but when he was running to be Conservative leader he said he wanted to end "corporate welfare," including subsidies to Quebec-based aerospace giant Bombardier.

He also wants to abolish the supply management system he says protects domestic farmers in the dairy sector by driving up prices for consumers.

"He's not trying to please the special interests that benefit from these policies. He's trying to work for the interests of 35 million Canadians," his top policy adviser, Martin Masse, told CBC News during his leadership run.

Bernier was joined at the leadership convention by his partner, Catherine Letarte. (Fred Thornhill/Canadian Press)

Masse met Bernier in 2003, when both men were involved with the Montreal Economic Institute, a free-market think-tank.

The pair clicked, sharing a vision for Canada framed by smaller government and lower taxes.

Before becoming vice-president at the institute, Bernier had honed his credentials working at various financial and banking institutions. He had also earned a commerce degree from the University of Quebec at Montreal and a law degree from the University of Ottawa.

Bernier explained Thursday that Masse left the institute this week and would be working with him on his new project on a full-time basis.

Bernier was born in St-Georges-de-Beauce and is the son of Gilles Bernier, a popular radio show host who represented the riding in Ottawa from 1984 to 1997 as a Progressive Conservative and then as an Independent.

Bernier with longtime friend and adviser Martin Masse, who will be helping to set up the new party. (Submitted )

The senior Bernier was barred from running under the federal Progressive Conservative banner due to fraud charges, of which he was later acquitted, and later served as Canada's ambassador to Haiti.

Maxime Bernier first ran for his father's old seat in 2006 and won, then won re-election three times.

On Thursday, all but one member of the local Conservative association in Bernier's riding have resigned, including Bernier's father Gilles Bernier, to join the Beauce MP's new political movement.

 "We've always been there more for Maxime than for the party," president Charles Laflamme said.

Building common goals

Masse describes Bernier as an enthusiastic leader who inspires and motivates based on building common goals and ideas, not taking a top-down approach.

He concedes one of Bernier's biggest challenges in running for the Conservative leadership was to shed a persistent public perception that he is intellectual lightweight, an image cemented by a series of gaffes while serving as a minister in Harper's cabinet.

He was mocked for delivering Joe Louis cakes to the troops in Afghanistan, because they said they would prefer steak and beer.

Bernier was forced to resign as foreign affairs minister in 2008 after leaving government documents at the home of his then-girlfriend Julie Couillard, left. By 2011 he was back in the Harper cabinet. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

But most memorable was the high-profile security breach scandal of 2008, when Bernier left confidential documents at the home of his then girlfriend, Julie Couillard. At the time, he was foreign affairs minister and she had past ties to the Hells Angels biker gang.

Masse said the episode left Bernier the butt of jokes and shaped a negative view in the public eye. But he staged a comeback and six months later, was planting the seeds for even bigger political ambitions.

Masse told CBC News in April 2017 that Canadians would come to see that Bernier had developed sound policy planks based on voracious reading, deep thinking and vigorous debate.

'Happy warrior'

"He is very serious. He just doesn't take himself too seriously," Masse said last year. "He doesn't try to put on airs of some kind of serious intellectual. He's exactly how he is: He's a happy warrior, he's enthusiastic. He likes what he's doing and he wants to have fun as well."

Bernier, shown in 1971 as an eight-year-old, was born in St-Georges-de-Beauce and is the son of Gilles Bernier, a popular radio show host who held the riding from 1984 to 1997. (Submitted )

But a Twitter exchange about systemic racism with black Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes this spring raised some eyebrows.

And as controversial recent tweets warning of "radical multiculturalism" and decrying the Liberals' emphasis on diversity began to dominate the political news cycle, Bernier's comments were seen as a headache for his party.

"The language coming from Mr. Bernier and other circles within the Conservative Party, it's unfortunate divisive language at a time when we need more empathy for the plight of our fellow humans," said NDP MP Alistair MacGregor this week.

Longtime Conservative MP Tony Clement, who has been critical of Bernier's tweets decrying immigration and multiculturalism, initially supported him during the party's leadership race, saying the Beauce politician was the best-positioned in a crowded field of candidates to beat Trudeau in the next election.

"Max is very disciplined intellectually and he has thought through his policy planks so we'll be able to defend them," he said in 2017. "He also has passion, and passion is important in politics. And the combination of being passionately in favour of things that are going to help Canadians and being able to articulate them is a really good combination."

Working closely behind the scenes as key cabinet ministers trying to find savings in federal spending, Clement said Bernier was quick to roll up his sleeves and meticulously scour line by line details to achieve the big-picture objective.

Bernier played high school football and is currently a long-distance runner. (Submitted )

Clement's support for Bernier tanked in the wake of the Beauce MP's tweets about "extreme multiculturalism" and Canada becoming too diverse a country under the Trudeau government.

"The Max Bernier that I supported during the leadership race wouldn't have taken the position he's taking now," Clement said recently.

"I think that Max may soon find that he's a guy raging at the sky rather than being taken seriously on some of these things," he added.

'Where the puck's going'

The 55-year-old father of two girls is now in a long-term relationship with Catherine Letarte, executive director of a non-profit community mental health organization in Montreal.

Family and physical fitness have been lifelong priorities for Bernier. He played for the school football team as a teenager and was a marathon runner.

Bernier once ran more than 100 kilometres across his riding to raise money for a local food bank. (Submitted )

In September 2013, he ran 107 kilometres across his riding in 13 hours, raising more than $153,000 for a local food bank.

After entering politics in 2006, Bernier served in the industry, foreign affairs and small business and tourism portfolios.

In opposition, he was named critic for innovation, science and economic development shortly after Scheer won the leadership, but was removed from that role in June after posting a chapter from his book on his website that argued Scheer owed his leadership to "fake conservatives."

About the Author

Kathleen Harris

Senior Writer

Kathleen Harris is a senior writer in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau. She covers politics, immigration, justice and corrections. Follow her on Twitter @ottawareporter

With files from Peter Zimonjic