Canada’s Far Right Is More of a Threat Than You Think

The good news is that Canada’s far-right party was shut out of Parliament in this week’s federal election. The bad news is that the People’s Party still tripled its vote and is now in a position to exert a dangerous influence on the political mainstream.

Maxime Bernier, leader of the People's Party of Canada, meets with his supporters at an election rally in Borden Park, Edmonton, Alberta, on September 11, 2021. (Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

If there’s any silver lining to be found in the results of Canada’s pointless and indecisive federal election, it’s the failure of the far-right People’s Party (PPC) to win a single seat. In the context of a pandemic election tinged with widespread anger and resentment, the prospect seemed distant but genuine — a few polls even pegging its national support at over 10 percent. These projections, as it turned out, dramatically overestimated the party’s support and ability to mobilize voters. Ultimately finishing with just over 5 percent of the total vote, PPC leader Maxime Bernier fell well short of winning back his old Quebec district of Beauce (one he represented for over a decade as a Conservative MP and cabinet minister) and failed to conjure the surge many had predicted in the right-wing heartland of Alberta.

For this reason, it’s tempting to exaggerate the extent to which the People’s Party flopped — a characterization that is, if nothing else, psychologically easier to process than the alternative. The truth is that the PPC won more than 800,000 votes nationwide, up from the roughly 300,000 it captured in 2019, despite a largely hostile media and Bernier’s exclusion from all three televised debates. The PPC’s failure to enter Parliament can thus be taken as a partial defeat but not a wholesale repudiation. With another election likely to occur sometime in the next eighteen months, no one should be complacent about the PPC’s future prospects, or the genuine possibility of its eventually securing an electoral beachhead.

Founded in 2018, the PPC was born of Bernier’s sudden departure from the Conservative caucus after narrowly losing out on the party leadership to Saskatchewan MP Andrew Scheer. The obvious personal dimension notwithstanding, the exit was framed largely in ideological terms as Bernier declared his old party “too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed.” Having peppered his speech with complaints about multiculturalism and excessive political correctness, it soon became clear that the Quebec MP’s game was to found something decidedly to the right of the Conservative Party, and the PPC was duly created the following month.

Drawing inspiration from both the Donald Trump experiment and elements of the European far right, the PPC can be characterized as a disparate mishmash of various reactionary impulses buried just beneath the surface of Canada’s conservative mainstream. Boosted throughout the past five weeks by its opposition to vaccine passports (Bernier himself addressing crowds at anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown rallies), its ethos is basically postmodern and internet-driven: sitting — as so much of the Right now does — at the nexus of conspiracy theory, white nationalism, pro-market dogma, free-floating antiestablishment sentiment, crank internet grift, and epically triggering the libs. (Emblematically, one PPC candidate in New Brunswick was revealed to be a pioneer of a technique he calls “testicle breathing,” while another compared vaccine passports to the genocidal program of residential schools inflicted on Canada’s indigenous peoples.)

Though officially far to the right of Canada’s political mainstream, much of this schtick is perfectly in sync with beliefs and attitudes prevalent among more ideological elements of the Conservative rank and file. Bernier, fittingly enough, came within a whisker of winning the 2017 Conservative leadership contest and becoming leader of the opposition — an outcome only narrowly averted by the convoluted system of multiple ballots used by the party to elect its leaders. Albeit for reasons of political expediency rather than beneficence, the Conservative Party tends to regulate and tamp down the more fanatical reflexes of its base — the better to sell its usual offering of dog whistles and bland fiscal conservatism to the bored suburbanites it courts to win elections.

With Bernier and the PPC, the de facto superego of the Canadian right now faces a competitor animated more by unrestrained id than cold strategic calculus. Though the party’s long-term prospects are uncertain after failing to win a seat, recent history suggests that the far right has a way of leveraging even bad electoral failures into tangible political and ideological gains.

Following the template of a formation like Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP), Bernier could shift mainstream political discourse without ever securing a foothold in Parliament — and will likely continue to receive quiet financial support from the more reactionary elements of the Canadian elite. It may be unlikely to supplant the Conservative Party, but Monday’s election has inarguably put the PPC in a position to exert real influence on the Conservative leadership, having almost certainly cost leader Erin O’Toole desperately needed wins throughout the country.

Though it ultimately fell short of some projections, Canada’s newly formed far-right party won the support of more than 800,000 voters this week. It’s a dangerous development that should worry us all.