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Power to the people: Maxime Bernier turns to social networks to boost base

By Charelle Evelyn      

His People’s Party could go further than nascent political parties of the past, with social media as a means of stoking the grassroots fires, supporters suggest.

Quebec MP Maxime Bernier announced the name of his new party, the People’s Party of Canada, during an Ottawa press conference on Sept. 14. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade
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Since announcing his exit from the Conservative Party in dramatic fashion last month, Quebec MP Maxime Bernier says he hasn’t had any contact with his former caucus colleagues, and is instead focusing on attempting to play spoiler in 2019 by using social media to drum up a new, engaged grassroots base.

On Sept. 14, Mr. Bernier (Beauce, Que.) followed through on his Aug. 23 promise to start a new political party, unveiling the name and logo of the People’s Party of Canada in an Ottawa press conference.

“Why this name? Because it’s time that the government put the Canadian people first when they make decisions and policies,” Mr. Bernier told reporters gathered at the National Press Theatre, in front of his new navy, red, and white logo, which features half a maple leaf. “It is time to put power back into the people’s hands.”

Right now, that handover is literal, with supporters of the nascent party—which has yet to be registered with Elections Canada—assembling in regional Facebook groups Mr. Bernier created last week to get the ball rolling in their respective areas.

As of the afternoon of Sept. 18, the population of the various regional Facebook groups—dubbed The People’s Network—was varied, with the most support found in Ontario (1,511 members), followed by Alberta (1,052 members), and British Columbia (639 members).

“We’re literally organizing ourselves,” said Cody Payant, a former Conservative Party member and volunteer who said he’s willing to carry the People’s Party banner as a candidate in 2019.

Mr. Payant would be seeking the nomination in the Saskatchewan riding of Saskatoon-University, where, if successful, he’d face off against the Conservative candidate Corey Tochor, who unseated Tory incumbent MP and former Conservative leadership candidate MP Brad Trost for the party’s 2019 nomination.

While there are a few people who have been in direct contact with Mr. Bernier and his organizers, most are finding each other through social media, leading to meet-ups, like the one held in Saskatoon on Sept. 16 at a local hotel. The Saskatchewan group has only around 300 members, but Mr. Payant said there’s plenty of on-the-ground activity, including at the University of Saskatchewan, where he works.

“There’s always been kind of a stigma in Saskatchewan about western alienation, about Quebec politicians,” Mr. Payant said, adding that Mr. Bernier has “been described as the Albertan from Quebec—that applies to Saskatchewan, too.”

Research published by Abacus Data in late August looking at potential areas from which Mr. Bernier could draw support suggested Saskatchewan and Manitoba were the second-highest region, at 17 per cent, behind Alberta’s 18 per cent.

Out in B.C., where Mr. Bernier has the potential to draw 10 per cent of the vote, according to the Abacus figures, Burnaby resident Nathan Weber—who was featured in a viral video expressing his discontent with the Conservative Party after debate over a supply management resolution was scuttled at the party’s August policy convention in Halifax—said social media has been the main tool to connect with fellow Bernier supporters, leading them to organize a preliminary lunch meeting Sept. 9 at a Vancouver White Spot restaurant.

Attendees left the meeting tasked with the responsibility to each sign up a handful of new party members to send off to Elections Canada. According to the Elections Act, the party requires the “names and addresses of 250 electors and their declarations in the prescribed form that they are members of the party and support the party’s application for registration” in order to become official.

“I think people are underestimating what can happen in just over a year with a new party in the age of social media and this digital age with the internet communication,” Mr. Weber told The Hill Times. “Everyone’s trying to compare it to the Reform Party and it took a long time for the Reform Party, from ‘87 to ’93…to really break through. It was expensive to meet up and to communicate and organize. Now it’s a lot easier.”

The ability to connect with people is “incredibly easier than it was at one time,” said Alex Marland, an author and political science professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland, pointing to research he did less than 20 years ago that found the Green Party faced “a serious impediment” in the 2000 election due to the high cost of long-distance phone calls.

Mr. Bernier also pointed to social media as a defining difference from the time Preston Manning was getting his splinter right-wing party off the ground.

“Those networks did not exist. And we’re using these networks to try and draw attention to what we’re saying and bring in members of this party,” he said.

Mr. Bernier said he has already raised $140,000 since his Aug. 23 announcement, from between 2,000 and 2,500 individual donors, flowing from emails and social media. Despite not yet being a registered party that can issue tax receipts, Mr. Bernier said he is following the Elections Canada rules regarding fundraising, with individuals only allowed to donate an annual maximum of $1,575.

There is no love lost between Mr. Bernier and his former caucus colleagues, who he said during his explosive Aug. 23 defection were “morally corrupt.” He offered a blunt denial when asked if he’d been in contact with any Tory MPs since his announcement and suggested he didn’t need them or their validation to lend his new venture any legitimacy for grassroots conservatives who may be wary about splitting the vote on the right.

People’s Party organizer Clinton Desveaux says the public will be ‘pleasantly surprised’ when the party’s executive is unveiled. Photograph courtesy of Clinton Desveaux

“You will see in a couple of weeks when we do another announcement about the executive of our party, you’ll see some people on the executive of our party that are very great Canadians,” Mr. Bernier said last week.

People will be “pleasantly surprised” when the party’s board is rolled out, said organizer Clinton Desveaux, a longtime friend and supporter of Maxime Bernier based in Atlantic Canada. Mr. Desveaux declined to name the people he said are involved, but said the soon-to-be announced party executive will help refute “this belief when Max first left that this was going to be a party of one.”

“I know that when we see who’s involved as far as the party structure…a lot of people are going to be like ‘Wow, there there’s a very serious team of people here that are coming together,’” Mr. Desveaux said in a phone interview.

Among those who have publicly put their names behind Mr. Bernier are former B.C. Conservative MP Gurmant Grewal, pot prince Marc Emery, and Dragons’ Den moneyman Michael Wekerle, according to the Canadian Press.

Mr. Bernier also has the public and financial backing of Quebec millionaire Eric Boyko, CEO of streaming music provider Stingray, the Journal de Montréal reported last week.

cevelyn@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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