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Conservatives reach out to Bernier supporters, ‘time will tell’ how many will follow him out of the party

By Charelle Evelyn      

Maxime Bernier’s ideas have a lot of appeal among the rank and file, says MP Peter Van Loan, but the Conservative Party is where they can pursue those issues.

With Maxime Bernier, left, out of the Conservative Party, Tory caucus members said they weren’t concerned party members would abandon the leadership of Andrew Scheer, right. The Hill Times file photograph
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HALIFAX—Members of the Conservative caucus presented a united front Thursday after Maxime Bernier’s dramatic exit from the party, and suggested the party’s rank and file wouldn’t be too quick to follow behind him.

Mr. Bernier (Beauce, Que.) lost the contest to lead the party last May by a razor-thin margin to Andrew Scheer (Regina–Qu’Appelle, Sask.). In fact, Mr. Bernier led the race in 12 of 13 ballots, before eventually losing with 49 per cent of the vote to Mr. Scheer’s 51 per cent.

Despite that nearly-balanced split, members of the Tory caucus—who said they’re now more united than ever—told The Hill Times they’re not worried that Mr. Bernier’s backers in the base will cleave off en masse to the new party the Quebec MP said he would be starting.

Conservative MP Marilyn Gladu (Sarnia–Lambton, Ont.) said she doesn’t think there’ll be too much of a groundswell of grassroots support for Mr. Bernier now that he’s left the flock.

“The folks that supported Max, the reactions we’ve heard from them are that they’re angry with him and they’re disappointed, as well,” she said.

Conservative MP Dean Allison (Niagara West, Ont.) said he didn’t know how party members are going to respond. “I guess time will tell how much support he has.”

According to data compiled by CPAC, during the 2017 leadership race, Mr. Bernier garnered support from 158 ridings, with his strongest support in Quebec ridings in the Montreal area, as well as Sherbrooke, Trois Rivieres, Bourassa Terrebone, Gatineau, Manicouagan, and Louis-Saint-Laurent in the final round of voting.

He also scooped up rural ridings across the country, such as Kenora and Timmins–James Bay, Ont., Churchill–Keewatinook Aski, Man., Fort McMurray–Cold Lake and Yellowhead, Alta., and took Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories and Nunavut.

The Globe and Mail  reported last week, the day before Mr. Bernier announced he was leaving the party, that Mr. Bernier still enjoyed widespread support from grassroots Conservatives, despite his controversial comments on Twitter in the past few weeks about Canada’s “extreme multiculturalism.”

Eight of the nine members of the Conservative electoral district association in Mr. Bernier’s riding, Beauce, resigned following his announcement that he was turning in his Conservative card, the CBC reported last week.

“We’ve always been there more for Maxime than for the party,” riding president Charles Laflamme told the CBC on Thursday. “The support was for Maxime.”

Tanya Eickhoff, the president of the Conservative riding association in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce-Westmount, Que., told The Hill Times Thursday she was “disappointed and angry” following Mr. Bernier’s defection.

Her riding broke for Mr. Bernier in the leadership race, giving him 67.71 points in the final ballot, compared to Mr. Scheer’s 32.29.

“What does he think? Who does he think’s going to join his new party? What is he going to achieve? We have to get rid of Trudeau,” said Ms. Eickhoff, who added the exiting MP has real grassroots support, and the Tories should be careful to include those supporters.

“I think it’s incumbent on all of us that we’re in contact with our supporters,” to mitigate any potential member defections, said MP Mike Lake (Edmonton–Wetaskiwin, Alta.). “We’re a party that has a pretty solid core set of principles…things Canadians can agree on, and we’ve got to try and find that common ground.”

Ontario Conservative MP Peter Van Loan, who announced he’ll be resigning his York–Simcoe seat in the House of Commons at the end of September, said he was “sort of sad” that as he’s leaving politics, there was a return to the type of division in the party that he spent the early part of his career working to bring together.

He said “there’s room for Maxime Bernier” in the party and that there’s no reason for him to have left.

“I think the ideas he speaks about are ideas that have a lot of appeal among the rank and file in our party, but I think the people in our party are part of this party because they feel this is where they can pursue those kinds of ideas,” he said.

MP Candice Bergen (Portage–Lisgar, Man.) said she’s not worried about a schism in the party’s base, even among those who supported Mr. Bernier in the leadership contest.

Tory MP Candice Bergen says she wants Maxime Bernier supporters to know they’re an important part of the Conservative Party. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“When Max lost the leadership race they recognized that and they have the same goals that we have, which is to beat Justin Trudeau,” she told The Hill Times. “And I’ve actually literally talked to people who’ve told me that they’re very disappointed, and so we want them to know: people who supported Max, they’re huge and important contributors to our party, they have some great ideas.”

Thornhill, Ont., MP Peter Kent said he’s also been hearing from disgruntled supporters, “people who consider themselves libertarian, but considered themselves honest politicians, trying to make policy changes.”

In the aftermath of Mr. Bernier dropping his bomb in a Parliament Hill press conference in Ottawa, in which he called his former party “morally corrupt” and said that he was now “convinced that what we will get if Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister is just a more moderate version of the disastrous Trudeau government,” Mr. Scheer and his lieutenants said that their former colleague had chosen to help the Trudeau government in its re-election bid.

Ms. Bergen said the distraction, which caucus members classified as momentary, was not insurmountable.

“The country’s looking for a party and leader who is going to be presenting ideas and policy that is going to get us back to the place we need to be, and that Canada can be. So any time you’re, even for a brief moment, not focused on that, it’s not a good thing,” she said. “But is it irreparable? Not at all.”

—with files from Samantha Wright Allen

cevelyn@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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