Canada’s election featured a newly formed anti-immigrant party fielding more than 300 candidates and seeking to replicate the success of similar right-wing populist movements around the world. It failed miserably.
The People’s Party of Canada was completely shut out in Monday’s election, unable to win a single seat and receiving only about 1.5% of the vote. Even its leader, former top Conservative Party politician Maxime Bernier, lost the parliamentary seat that he has held since 2006.
Bernier spent the campaign promoting a divisive and exclusionary message that could have easily come from far-right parties such as Germany’s AfD or France’s National Front. He vowed to build a border fence to keep out asylum seekers, stoked fears of “radical Islam” in the country and told a rally earlier this year that he wanted to “make Canada great again.”
Bernier founded the party in 2018, after losing a Conservative Party leadership contest to Andrew Scheer, and quickly settled on an anti-immigration message. Despite the party polling around 3% throughout the campaign, Bernier was a highly visible figure during the race and participated in the federal leaders debate. His presence in the election, a sharp contrast with Canada’s progressive multicultural image, drew international media attention, including a profile in The New York Times that described him as a “lanky provocateur.”
On social media, Bernier also became an outsize presence over the past year through his increasingly anti-immigrant rhetoric and inflammatory statements. He posted a series of tweets attacking 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, shared a QAnon conspiracy video and railed against anti-fascists.
Although Bernier denied during the campaign that his party held racist or extremist views, it attracted far-right supporters and some of its founding members were previously associated with neo-Nazi and anti-Islam groups. He became a darling of right-wing pundits, including Dave Rubin and the far-right Canadian outlet Rebel Media, which has served as a launching pad for prominent white nationalists. Bernier himself posed with white supremacists on the campaign trail multiple times, later claiming he didn’t know about their affiliations.
Bernier also allowed many candidates with racist, far-right views to remain in his party despite backlash. Two of his candidates tweeted a cartoon of the left-wing New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, who is Sikh, with a bomb in his turban. Another candidate was a YouTube conspiracy theorist who posted QAnon conspiracies accusing world leaders of pedophilia, Vice Canada reported. One PPC candidate even quit the party, saying it had turned into a “vehicle for racism.”
Canada has been somewhat insulated from the rise of radical right populist parties and far-right leaders that have become mainstreamed in countries around the world in recent years ― although there is no expert consensus on why that is or if it will last. At the same time, far-right extremism is still a rising threat in Canada and misinformation spreads freely on Canadians’ social media. Parts of the country have passed measures restricting religious symbols, a trend that critics say is rooted in Islamophobia. Canada’s progressive reputation was also dented during the campaign when images emerged of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface ― highlighting how the country often glosses over its history of racism and discrimination.
But unlike in other countries dealing with similar political issues, right-wing populists in Canada weren’t able to convert their nativist message into votes. Instead, Bernier and his party performed even more poorly than expected. His gamble to see if Canada would embrace a radical right party failed, and he’s now out of a job.