Maxime Bernier isn’t fazed by recent polling that suggests he is in a dead heat with the Conservative candidate running against him in the upcoming federal election for his Quebec riding, Beauce.
“I’m pretty optimistic that in the end I will win,” Bernier told Global News in a recent interview from Ottawa. “But I don’t take anything for granted.”
Until last year, Bernier himself had been the Conservative Member of Parliament for Beauce, a region made up of several municipalities south of Quebec City that stretches to the border with Maine. After losing the national Conservative leadership race by a small margin to Andrew Scheer, Bernier went on to renounce the party as “morally corrupt” and started the People’s Party of Canada that sits even further to the right.
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Earlier this month, polling from the riding suggested that Bernier is running nearly neck-and-neck with Conservative candidate Richard Lehoux, a fourth-generation dairy farmer and long-time mayor from the area.
Further, qualitative data suggests that Bernier’s main talking points are out of step with the concerns of those in the Beauce region.
“People in his riding are not talking about anything that he’s talking about,” Darrell Bricker, CEO at polling firm at Ipsos Public Affairs, told Global News. Bricker analyzed data from the region this week based on conversations on social media.
“He’s out there talking about immigration and climate change. The folks in his riding are talking about other things like jobs and the economy.”
Bricker said this contradiction could pose an uphill battle for Bernier in the upcoming election.
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Though Bernier is running a national campaign for his new party, his fight against Lehoux in the Beauce could determine the future of the PPC, as well as his own political career. Though Bernier is beloved among Beaucerons, his party does not have the same brand awareness and reputation as the Conservatives, their party of choice since 2006.
“They know that I’m the same guy. I will always fight for them,” Bernier said, pointing to the lengths he has been willing to go for the riding, including running an ultra-marathon at the age of 50 to raise thousands for a local food bank.
And it helps that the Bernier name is an institution in the riding. His father, Gilles, represented it as a Progressive Conservative MP, and then as an independent, from 1984 until 1997.
The election in Beauce this fall will serve as a test of Bernier’s controversial ideas and rhetoric around immigration and refugees, and whether those who live in what is demographically one of the the whitest federal ridings in the country will embrace or overlook them.
Last November, the Conservatives tapped Lehoux as their candidate to take on Bernier. Lehoux, who was the Quebec federation of municipalities (FQM) president, also served as mayor of Saint-Elzéar, in the Beauce region, for 19 years before he retired in 2017 to return to agriculture.
“Many people still have trouble to differentiate which party their current MP is a member of,” Lehoux told Global News.
Lehoux, who said his family has been in the Beauce for eight generations — his great-grandfather served as mayor of Saint-Elzear from 1898 to 1902 — is running with the campaign slogan, “Let’s Work Together for the Beauce.”
“I’m convinced they will again vote Conservative come Oct. 21,” said Lehoux, whose campaign manager was once Bernier’s.
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In announcing Lehoux’s candidacy, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer touted Lehoux’s experience with agriculture and the local economy.
“He’s got the support of 20 mayors in the Beauce region. It’s a great sign for our party. I’m very confident that we’re going to keep this riding blue in the next election,” Scheer told reporters at the time. Scheer, who is six-foot-four, towered over Lehoux.
He also took a few shots at Bernier.
“Maxime made his choice. He decided to put his personal ambitions ahead of the party and the ability for us to replace Justin Trudeau,” Scheer said.
“I think it’s a sign that we have someone here who can work together, work together as a team, that it’s not just about one person’s personal vision, it’s about finding common ground between all those who want to replace Justin Trudeau with a party and a government that’s going to lower taxes, create economic growth, and respect the interests of Quebec.”
Following the announcement, Bernier took to Twitter to criticize Lehoux’s connection to what he called the “dairy cartel.” Bernier’s PPC platform vows to phase out Canada’s supply management system, which upholds a protected market for dairy, egg and poultry producers.
Lehoux, who has worked on his family’s farm for more than 35 years and has sold cattle around the world, brushed off Bernier’s accusations as misinformed.
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Lehoux said that one of the issues he’s been hearing about the most on the pre-campaign trail is about general labour shortages in the Beauce, something that is especially important for the riding that prides itself on the strength of its local businesses.
“In every major town and city in Beauce you’ll find ’we’re hiring’ signs,” Lehoux said. “It’s important to have balanced immigration legislation and improve access to employment for retired persons to combat this labour shortage.”
“We have a lot of large companies and also an exceptionally large number of small companies, which is where the well-known Beauceron spirit of entrepreneurship was born.”
Bernier’s popularity and reputation within the Beauce runs deep. His more contentious policy proposals, especially regarding reducing immigration levels and a Donald Trump-esque promise to build fences along the border to block out asylum-seekers, do not sit well with some voters. But they aren’t necessarily deal-breakers.
Michel Jacques is a semi-retired businessman born and raised in the Beauce who says he knew Bernier growing up. Like most of his fellow Beaucerons, Jacques voted for Bernier in the last election.
Jacques said he will likely vote for Bernier this fall, even though he says that Bernier’s rhetoric around migration and multiculturalism doesn’t always align with his own.
Jacques’ perspectives on such issues shifted recently. He said he used to consider himself to be racist. He said he had developed fear and hatred toward the Muslim community, fuelled by the stereotypes he saw on the news and in the media.
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“I did not want immigration. I had prejudices about them,” Jacques said. He had a choice to make: continue down this path or change. This spring Jacques posted on Facebook, asking whether any Muslim people wanted to meet with him in person to answer some questions he had about them and their faith.
“I rented a local place for me to meet with them. There was a table, chairs, and coffee,” he said. A few Muslims showed up, he said. Things went well, and Jacques continued to maintain those relationships and what he describes as a respectful dialogue.
His group, called Musul-Beauce , has since grown online and in real life and has been upheld as an example of positive dialogue in a province where tensions around religion and multiculturalism run high.
Recently, Bernier said that “Islamist extremists” had “infiltrated” Canadian politics, but he did not back that up.
Bernier’s rhetoric, however, has not alienated voters like Jacques.
“Basically, I prefer a politician who reveals his true intentions to the one who tells us what we would like to hear,“ said Jacques.
“Although Maxime sometimes gets bogged down in the way his messages are sent and he rocks a little too far right, his way of doing politics is different and everywhere in the world, we need this feeling of difference and of change. This is my personal opinion of a former racist who today manages a blog on living better together with Muslims in Canada.”
Bernier will officially launch his national campaign in Sainte-Marie, Beauce on Sunday.
“What is best for the Beauce is what is best for Canada,” Bernier said. “I’m pretty confident that I can win, but I must do my best. And people know me when I’m doing something, I’m doing it 100 per cent.”