Andy Brooke appeared frantic as he searched for his speech.
“I thought I’d lost it,” he said as he waved his rediscovered piece of paper. Beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
Around him, people trickled into the conference room on the sixth floor of the Delta Hotel downtown Kingston, Ont., to attend a rally on May 1 for Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada.
“Welcome! Hello!” shouted a man in a dark suit with a PPC name tag on his jacket at the doorway.
This was the latest stop on Bernier’s cross-country tour that has attracted “Mad Max” devotees and undecided voters who are curious about the “principled alternative” to the Conservatives. These public fora provide insight into his ground game and what’s drawing people toward a party that has been accused of pandering to the far right.
An elderly couple cooed at the panoramic view of Lake Ontario, while a man and two young children took their seats facing the podium and a large banner of Brooke. A group of young guys who looked barely old enough to vote stood near the bartender.
Nathaniel Smith, an American who said he’s in the process of getting Canadian citizenship, can’t even vote here yet but drove from upstate New York to see Bernier and support the PPC.
“Mr. Bernier is somebody who represents people like me,” he said.
Bernier would be there soon, Brooke said. He took a quick glance towards his prospective constituents. The retired RCMP officer had just been tapped as the PPC candidate for the riding of Kingston and the Islands, which represents around 90,000 people.
“We’re the underdog, and it’s exciting,” he said.
Though the party is still in its infancy, this isn’t Brooke’s first foray into politics. He ran for the Conservatives in Kingston during the last federal election in 2015 but lost by a wide margin to Liberal Mark Gerretsen.
Brooke wasn’t clear back then whether he’d ever run again. Four years later, he’s abandoned the Tories to represent the splinter party unveiled by Bernier last fall — and defend it.
“People have attributed labels to us,” Brooke said, unprompted. “I’m not going to repeat any labels because I don’t want to empower them. … Associating us with the fringe, that is absolutely baseless.”
“Once people see, for example, me, they’re going to take a second (look) at this party,” Brooke said.
“Anti-immigration? It’s not,” he continued. “It’s about bringing it back to a sustainable level.”
WATCH: Maxime Bernier is building a new political party
The week was only halfway through, but it was already marked by significant milestones for the nascent party built on an agenda described by Bernier as “smart populism.” Policies include slashing taxes, abolishing supply management and capping immigration. The PPC raked in more than $760,000 during the first quarter of 2019, according to the Canadian Press. It was not far off the $783,000 raised by the Green Party, which had its best quarter since it was founded 36 years ago.
Though the PPC managed to capture 11 per cent of the vote last fall during the Burnaby South byelection, recent polling suggests it has neither garnered meaningful traction nor poses any major threat to Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives.
“We haven’t been registering them as showing anything,” said Darrell Bricker, CEO of polling firm Ipsos, in April regarding a poll conducted for Global News. The poll showed a tight race between the Conservatives and the Liberals at 36 and 32 per cent, respectively. Other polls show the PPC registering around three per cent.
In spite of the low numbers, Bernier is forging ahead, with energetic in-person gatherings and a charged online presence that includes heated exchanges with MPs from his former party. He has also said that even though people may be more aware of him than they are of his party, his personal brand recognition will only help to boost the party’s popularity over the long term.
Over the last couple of weeks, Bernier has announced a slew of new PPC candidates, providing further insight into his supporters. He was also endorsed last week by Peterborough, Ont., man Kevin Goudreau, who leads the Canadian Nationalist Front and has a swastika tattooed on his chest. He was one of several people and groups banned by Facebook last month for engaging in “organized hate” and other violations.
“There’s Maxime Bernier candidates here, and I’m going to vote for them,” Goudreau said in a video posted to YouTube. “I’m throwing my weight behind the People’s Party of Canada because I want (a) massive reduction in immigration.”
Bernier has said that “racists are not welcome in this party.”
Bernier is adamant the PPC will have candidates in all 338 ridings ahead of the election. He needs 304 in order to participate against the other party leaders in the debates this fall.
His new recruits include Mark Friesen, who’s running in the Saskatoon-Grasswood riding against a Conservative incumbent. Friesen is a self-proclaimed “proud” member of the Yellow Vest movement. Some of its adherents have propagated hatred and threats of violence online, including death threats against Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Bernier has repeatedly interacted with members of the movement, including during a protest on Parliament Hill in February and during an interview with two Yellow Vesters at a PPC event in Toronto on May 2.
“The Yellow Vests, as a movement, a protest entity, is not racist in any way, nor is it extremist in any way,” Friesen wrote on Facebook on April 28. “My country comes before party and before Yellow Vests, just so happens the Yellow Vests and my party believe in, and want to protect, those Canadian values we all share.”
In a video taken inside his vehicle announcing his candidacy, Friesen described how, as a corrections officer for 25 years, he had to deal with a lot of policy and bureaucracy that he didn’t agree with.
“It’s a pretty dark, dangerous environment,” he said. For him, it was Bernier’s stance against the UN that sold him on the PPC.
“I’ve really sunk myself into politics due to the sustainable development agenda and the UN and how that’s affecting our sovereignty in Canada,” Friesen said. “And how it’s creating policy that doesn’t fit or benefit Canadians, like the carbon tax, like the migrant pact.”
That same week, conservative YouTuber and musician Kelly Day joined Friesen in announcing that she would also be running for the PPC. In a YouTube video, Day announced her candidacy for the Prince Albert riding, which also currently has a Conservative MP.
“We have very similar ideas,” Day told her viewers.
She posted a video last month addressing Facebook’s crackdown on white nationalists, saying that she doesn’t think that people should be censored. This includes Faith Goldy, who regularly posts white nationalist content on social media.
“I am not a white nationalist,” Day said. “I mean, I am white and I suppose I do approve of Canadian nationalism.”
Day added, citing PPC founding member Joe Hazelton: “I’ve never been particularly proud of my skin colour; however, I’ll be damned if I’m going to apologize for it.”
“To me, it’s a melanin level, it really is pigmentation,” she continued. “And at the end of the day, if we’re Canadian, we’re Canadian.”
WATCH: Yellow Vests rally in Saskatoon fighting carbon tax
At the Kingston rally, two men in their early 30s stood at the bar. They appeared to be the only people of colour in the crowd of mostly white people.
One of them, Tommy, who didn’t want his last name published for that reason, pointed to two café owners in the nearby town of Napanee who faced a deluge of online hate after posing for a photo with Ontario Premier Doug Ford. He came to the rally anyway, at the invitation of a friend, and also out of curiosity.
“Plus, I heard there was going to be drinks and hors d’oeuvres,” he said. He declined to reveal his previous political affiliations. He said he’ll definitely vote this year but he’s still making up his mind.
“I have no idea what this party is about,” Tommy said before taking a sip from his martini glass. His hands and neck are adorned with colourful tattoos.
He said he discussed the event with a few friends over beers the night before and asked their view on the People’s Party.
“They told me it was somewhere between super far-right and total fascism,” he said.
But that didn’t dissuade him from coming. He said he had hoped to attend a flat-earth gathering one day.
“I think it’d be really curious,” he said. “I might even be convinced.”
“So for the same reason I want to go to a flat-earther conference, I’ll come here and see what they say,” he said.
WATCH: Self-taught rocket scientist launches himself into sky to prove Earth is flat
Cats in the Cradle by Harry Chapin faded into the background as the PPC Kingston chapter president, Alexander Morrison, introduced Bernier to a crowd that had grown to more than 100 people.
Bernier’s entrance was met with applause, and he promised to keep his speech short. He ended up speaking for nearly an hour.
He delved into his usual talking points: abolishing corporate welfare, building pipelines and overhauling equalization payments.
“Quebec must receive zero money,” Bernier said. “That equalization formula is a poverty trap.”
The crowd’s responses to all these points were tepid at best. It felt more like a lecture than a rally.
But the crowd came alive at the mention of immigration about half an hour in.
“Our immigration system must be there to fulfil our economic needs for our country,” said Bernier as applause erupted. “We’re not against immigration and we’re not for mass immigration, we just want fewer immigrants and we want these people that are coming to our country, we want them to share our Canadian values.”
“I don’t want our country, in 20 years, to be like in Europe or to be like France or Belgium,” he continued over a boisterous response.
“Yes!” someone shouted.
Bernier went on to tell an anecdote about his time running for Conservative Party leadership in 2017 as an example of how he doesn’t pander to “special interest groups” and how his new platform is just the same as it was then.
He described that during the Conservative Party debates, he received a call from “a Muslim organization in Toronto,” which he said was calling all the candidates, including him. He said he eventually sat down with the Muslim organization in front of a number of Muslims who support the Conservatives, and at the end, a woman from the group asked him: “What would you do for the Muslim community?”
“I looked at her and said: ‘Nothing! I’ll do nothing for the Muslim community!”’ The crowd burst into cheers.
He then added he would also “do nothing for the Jewish community … I’ll do everything for you as a Canadian.” The crowd still clapped.
Tommy stayed for the entire thing.
As someone who’s half-Filipino, he said he was disturbed by Bernier’s immigration rhetoric.
“I’m all for personal responsibility and lower taxes for small business owners,” he said. “Not this.”
He looked around at the line of people waiting to take photos with Bernier.
“This isn’t Kingston,” he said. “This is a small room.”
—With files from Kraig Krause