Andrew Scheer joins caucus members in condemning Bernier's 'identity politics'

Maxime Bernier received an official rebuke from his boss, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, and a broadside from a Pakistani-Canadian Conservative senator today as the party moved to distance itself from the former leadership contender's opinions on multiculturalism on the eve of its national convention.

'He's just poking us in the eye for no reason,' Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan tells CBC

Newly elected Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer (L) is congratulated by Conservative MP Maxime Bernier in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, May 29, 2017. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Maxime Bernier received an official rebuke from his boss, Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer, and a broadside from a Pakistani-Canadian Conservative senator today as the party moved to distance itself from the former leadership contender's opinions on multiculturalism on the eve of its national convention.

Scheer pointed out in a statement issued this evening that Bernier "holds no official role in caucus and does not speak for the Conservative Party of Canada on any issue."

Referencing Bernier's recent tweets attacking the Liberal government's "extreme multiculturalism," Scheer said that "personally, I disagree with politicians on the left and the right when they use identity politics to divide Canadians.

"I will not engage in this type of politics.

"Conservatives celebrate Canada's diversity and a Conservative government will continue to welcome those from all over the world who choose to come here because of the society we have built."

Conservative Ontario Sen. Salma Ataullahjan took a harder line with Bernier after he publicly criticized the city of Winnipeg's decision to rename a park there after Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of the modern state of Pakistan.

Bernier described the decision to name the park after Jinnah as an example of Canada's tilt toward "extreme multiculturalism" under the federal Liberal government.

He said renaming the park after a Pakistani leader — during the same week the City of Victoria removed a statue of Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, because it might cause offence — is an example of diversity going too far.

He also argued that the partition of India, which led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947, killed nearly 1 million people.

Ataullahjan said she was "incredibly disappointed" by Bernier's tweet.

"This kind of rhetoric creates division. Is that your aim? If so, what is your end game with this sort of identity politics?" she tweeted.

In a subsequent interview with CBC News, Ataullahjan said Bernier's tweet is not merely offensive — it's an attempt to divide Canadians of Pakistani origins from other Canadians.

Ontario Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan, who is Pakistani-Canadian, said Maxime Bernier's latest tweet about the renaming of a park in Winnipeg after the founder of Pakistan is offensive and an attempt to divide Canadians. (Salma Ataullahjan/Senate of Canada)

"Where is this coming from? I have a lot of respect for Maxime but it's divisive politics and I don't like that ... maybe he could say something else instead of picking on loyal Canadians and a community that's just trying to mind its own business," she said.

"A lot of [Pakistani-Canadians] supported his leadership bid and instead of wishing them well on Pakistan Independence Day he tweets this out ... He's just poking us in the eye for no reason."

Ataullahjan said the timing of the tweet is "curious" — only a week before Conservative parliamentarians and party members gather in Halifax to put together a party platform to take them into the next election.

She said former Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney did a lot of work to court Canadians of various ethnic backgrounds and bring them into the Conservative fold. Tweets like Bernier's, she argued, undermine those efforts.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper speaks as he breaks the Ramadan fast with an iftar dinner with members of the Muslim community and former multiculturalism minister Jason Kenney, left, Senator Salma Ataullahjan, second from left. Ataullahjan said Bernier's latest tweets about the renaming of a park are offensive. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Ataullahjan said she is set to host a major fundraiser this weekend where there will be many Pakistani-Canadian supporters of the party; she said she has already heard from a number of disgruntled donors who have told her they are troubled their community has been singled out by Bernier.

The senator said the Winnipeg park renaming had been in the works for a long time, was paid for by donations from Canadians of Pakistani origin — and has nothing to do with the Macdonald statue in B.C.

She also said Jinnah was a widely celebrated leader — a secular politician at a time of great unrest on the Indian subcontinent. Jinnah is revered in Pakistan and is called "Qaid e Azam," Urdu for "great leader."

When asked if Scheer should remove Bernier from the Conservative caucus after this and other controversial tweets in recent weeks, Ataullahjan said that's a decision for Scheer to make. She also said she will speak to Scheer soon and tell him how poorly Bernier's opinions are playing with Pakistani-Canadians.

Scheer's statement made no mention of the possibility of ejecting Bernier from caucus.

In a series of tweets posted Sunday, Bernier said promoting too much diversity could have the effect of dividing Canada into "little tribes" that cause division and erode Canada's social cohesion.

Before Scheer issued his statement, Liberal Ontario MP Arif Virani, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of heritage, also called for Bernier to be booted from the Conservative caucus and called out Scheer for failing to condemn Bernier's behaviour. 

"I urge you to remove Mr. Bernier from your caucus immediately, otherwise Canadians will be forced to conclude that you accept his backward views," Virani wrote in a letter sent to reporters Wednesday.

"Newcomers have not threatened what it means to be Canadian. To the contrary, successive generations of immigrants have enriched what it means to be Canadian."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh weighed into the debate Wednesday, saying he's disappointed Scheer hasn't denounced Bernier's "divisive comments" and adding it sends a "dangerous message" to Canadians of diverse backgrounds.

"I've waited to respond to Maxime Bernier's comments to see if @AndrewScheer would do the responsible thing & denounce these divisive words. He has not. To everyone that belongs to a diverse community – who's been told you don't belong – I've been in your shoes, I get it," he tweeted.

CBC News has asked Bernier's office for comment.

Ataullahjan is not the only Conservative parliamentarian to speak out against Bernier's comments on diversity.

'Big blue tent'

Conservative Alberta MP Deepak Obhrai — who, like Bernier, also ran for the party's leadership — said the party should focus on creating a "big blue tent" that welcomes all Canadians, regardless of ethnic or racial origins.

"As a Conservative MP of diverse background our party is about the big blue tent that I advocated [for] during the leadership race. The conservative movement is very attractive to all Canadians. That's where our focus should be," he tweeted.

"Diversity has brought strength to Canada. Focusing on few individuals/groups who may reject our values of as enshrined in our (Charter of Rights) are not the strength of diversity."

Bernier has also collided with Scheer over the issue of supply management. Bernier has vocally condemned the policy that uses quotas to control the volumes of certain farm products to ensure national supply matches expected demand.

In June, Bernier released a chapter of his new book on supply management, in which he accuses Scheer of winning the party's leadership with the support of "fake Conservatives" who were only interested in voting against Bernier's candidacy because of his opposition to supply management in the dairy sector.

He was later removed from Scheer's shadow cabinet, where he had served as the party's industry critic.

Bernier maintains a strong following among Conservative activists; he paid off his leadership campaign debts in August after a series of successful email fundraising campaigns.

About the Author

John Paul Tasker

Parliamentary Bureau

John Paul (J.P.) Tasker is a reporter in the CBC's Parliamentary bureau in Ottawa. He can be reached at john.tasker@cbc.ca.