What the rise of the PPC says about Canada in 2021
TORONTO -- While the People's Party of Canada did not manage to gain any seats this federal election, its accruing of the popular vote has experts saying the rise of the far-right populist party cannot be ignored.
Maxime Bernier, who failed to win his own riding of Beauce, Que., said Monday that he will remain as party leader despite the defeat, telling CTV News’ Genevieve Beauchemin at his Saskatoon rally that he views the election outcome as “a huge victory.”
The PPC won over 820,000 votes and more than five per cent of the popular vote this time around, a marked increase from the 1.6 per cent of the vote it got in 2019.
POPULISM FINDS A HOME
The party that ran on an anti-immigration, anti-lockdown platform that has been endorsed by white nationalists, Neo-Nazis and other far-right groups has become a home for anti-vaxxers, anti-government protesters and gun rights activists, showing that populism on the left or right may be more about a movement than a traditional political party, said University of Guelph professor of political science Tamara Small.
“I think the only leader who is ecstatic about last night’s results is Bernier,” said Small in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca after the election. “I don’t think they’re going anywhere… it seems that he's taken that populism and attached it to far-right politics.”
The idea of Canadian exceptionalism from far-right and populist movements needs to be dispelled, Small said.
“The idea used to be that Canada was immune to sort of far-right populism…this idea that Canadians were sort of going to be free from the populism that we saw in Europe, like Nigel Farage is to the U.K.,” Small said. “But I think lots of people are wondering, if he’s [Bernier] just going to say ‘I'm not here to form government…I'm more here to challenge the system’” as a way of gaining support.
Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, said it makes sense to call the PPC a populist party, and that the party takes "an extremist position on things like immigration and diversity."
“They’re extreme in terms of their anti-Trudeau or anti-state positioning. They're extreme in terms of their anti-lockdown and anti-tax standpoints as well. So, yeah, I think they absolutely might be considered extremists,” Perry said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca.
“As is calling them a populist group or populist party, because that's really what he's done so effectively is absorbed some of those broad concerns around COVID-19 and freedom and even the more mainstream concerns about economic anxieties, loss of jobs, loss of businesses… and managed to roll them all up.”
Some who support the PPC bristle at the implication that the party is a hotbed of far-right rhetoric or white nationalist supporters, with many online saying they simply support a party that is dedicated to their freedoms.
In an email to CTVNews.ca, PPC candidate for the riding Parkdale-High Park Ont., Wilfried Danzinger, denied that the party is aligned with extremist values, writing that “love was the guiding principle of his campaign,” and that his supporters come from all “different sexual preferences, all ages and religions.”
When CTVNews.ca emailed the PPC for comment on this story, party spokesperson Martin Masse sent back a one-line response: “I don’t respond to requests from leftist activists masquerading as journalists. Get lost.”
COVID-19 WAS A ‘GIFT’ TO THE PPC
The rise of the PPC in the polls can be attributed partially to the “gift” of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Evan Balgord, executive director of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
Balgord said that “the COVID-19 pandemic was a gift to the far-right” in general as it allowed them to infiltrate conspiracy theory spaces and begin attracting new followers.
“The rise of the party kind of fit into this because these people didn't really have a political party. If they voted for any party, they would vote Conservative,” he said. “But they weren't particularly happy about voting Conservative either because they're the most fringe. So when the PCC started as a party in 2019, Bernier, right from day one was using their language, their talking points, and the words of the far-right in several spaces. We saw them actually say ‘Bernier is dog whistling to us.’”
But Small questioned whether the end of the COVID-19 pandemic would stop the drip of followers to the PPC and spell a marked decline in the party.
“My sense is that a lot of this anger and concern is tied up in a particular type of anger about lockdowns and vaccine mandates and overreach of the state,” Small said. “I'm not too sure whether or not once the pandemic is done, to what extent the party still exists.”
It is a sentiment echoed by extremism researcher and assistant professor at Queen’s University, Amarnath Amarasingam.
“In early 2020, with COVID-19, the kind of conspiratorial thinking and angst around the pandemic went through the roof, and a lot of these movements coalesced around similar ideas,” Amarasingam said in a telephone interview with CTVNews.ca, noting that traditionally conspiracy movements generally operate separately from each other.
Amarasingam said the COVID-19 pandemic “gave them all a common cause and they all were playing in the same playground.”
Amarasingam said the question now surrounding the PPC is whether its rise is solely due to the “catch-all” the party provided surrounding anger around lockdowns, quarantine and the pandemic, “or whether it's a sign of something bubbling beneath the surface that a lot of everyday Canadians actually held secretly anti-immigrant views, anti-refugee groups, all the things that are part of the PPC platform.”
“If that's the case, I mean, it's going to be a longer concern of ours,” he continued. “So that's kind of the big question is whether this is just a blip because of the pandemic or whether it kind of speaks to something else going on that we should be concerned about.”
HATE WAS ON THE BALLOT
Bernier has always denied ties or affiliations to any of the far-right, white supremacist and Neo-Nazi rhetoric he is accused of platforming with his stance on things like reduced immigration and scrapping the Multiculturalism Act.
However, Balgord said known Neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups endorse the party, and that the party is populated with a litany of candidates, insiders and supporters who have been documented by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network as members of far-right groups.
“There's so many examples,” he said. “This isn't a few isolated incidents, this is a pattern. This is what the PPC is.”
Balgord referenced more than 10 incidents of PPC candidates or people associated with the party who have engaged in far-right rhetoric or have been exposed by work done by the Canadian Anti-Hate Network as being part of white nationalist groups.
Balgord noted that the man charged with throwing gravel at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while he was campaigning as the Liberal leader was a riding director for the PPC, and that his organization had previously exposed him for “posting white power music on social media accounts with lyrics about killing immigrants.”
Another example listed by Balgord was PPC candidate Mario Greco for the Ontario riding of Vaughn-Woodbridge who was exposed by Press Progress this month for allegedly having created a video game where users can partake in their own shooting of caricatures of minorities and LGBTQ2S+ people.
In a video presentation obtained by Press Progress, Greco allegedly compared his game to that of Super Columbine Massacre RPG in which users can re-enact the 1999 Columbine shooting massacre.
Bernier himself has been featured on what Balgord describes as an “anti-Semitic blog collective,” which endorses a book full of terrorist Nazi ideologies.
The PPC platform itself is also chock-full of “dog whistles” to the far-right, Balgord, Amarasingam and Perry said, referencing the sections on refugees, immigration and “Canadian identity.”
“I think the Canadian identity is tied to the anti-immigration, anti-refugee stuff,” Amarasingam said. “But I know when someone says Canadian identity, especially with all the other things that are at play in the platform, what that likely means for the PPC, is basically kind of ‘The Great Replacement,’ but around Canadian values.”
The Great Replacement theory is a conspiracy prevalent in white nationalist and far-right groups that posits that a shadowy cabal is behind demographic changes in a country or area, and that “white identity” or “Western values” are in decline because of it.
Balgord said it is known to have spurred terrorist attacks like the Christchurch mosque shooting of 2019.
“When we talk about the PPC, it's necessary to talk about their ties to white supremacy and white nationalism and how dangerous the thing is, they're not just another political party, right?” Balgord said. “They're the white nationalist and the hate movement in Canada. It's their way of trying to get a foothold into mainstream Canadian politics.”
Perry noted the language Bernier has used in his campaigns, in tweets and even in his speech on election night, in particular his word choices of “government overreach, tyrannies and authoritarian government.”
“Look at some of the language. It's drawn from groups like three percenters…in particular in the militia movement,” Perry said. “So, yeah, there's a very direct line. It's not a dotted line. It's a direct line.”
But when asked about the PPC and Bernier’s denial of allegations of extremist views, Balgord was unimpressed.
“The PPC is the party of plausible deniability,” he said. “But when you really scratch the surface, you find that it's a party for white nationalists.”
WHERE DOES CANADA GO FROM HERE?
For the single-issue voters who chose to vote for Bernier’s party because of their views on lockdowns or COVID-19 vaccine mandates, the end of lockdowns and pandemic restrictions may tempt them away from the party, but Amarasingam says they cannot deny that their vote is still an endorsement of what the PPC represents.
“I think if you're a single-issue voter on the vaccine, and you can find common cause with the PPC that doesn't necessarily make you far-right, that just means that you're unfortunately willing to sell a whole host of Canadian communities down the river to hold up this one value,” he said.
Amarasingam said that education on extremism may be what people need to make informed choices moving forward.
“I think everyone basically has to become an extremism watcher now that it's no longer just some of us who live in these bizarre online communities paying attention to things, because as things become mainstream, people need to understand extremism and how these dynamics work and how these movements work,” he said.
As for the PPC’s presence in mainstream politics, Perry and Small said it’s a fine line to walk between exposing and identifying extremist views and providing too much of a platform for them to gain more followers.
“I think people feel very differently. I think there's a lot of people who would say you should just ignore these people and never give them any platform,” Small said. “But I'm of the belief that not being aware in some ways is like throwing a match into a forest and then just not worrying about it.”