They might never win an election — so what keeps a fringe party alive?

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Now that the federal election campaign is underway, it's the main-stream parties that get most of the media attention. And that leaves the so-called fringe candidates on the sidelines. – Sep 12, 2019

Four rescue cats roam the office of the Animal Protection Party of Canada in Toronto’s east end. Two are quite social, while the others hide somewhere behind a piece of furniture, or maybe atop one of the cat climbing towers.

“They all have FIV. Feline AIDS,” Liz White, who founded the party in 2005, says as one cat, Mo, jumps onto the chair beside her at the wooden kitchen table. She strokes his head. 

“But they are totally healthy and we’ve had them for 10 years.”

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White has been an animal rights and environmental activist for much longer than that, including running an animal rescue and adoption program called Project Jessie since 1990. Posters of some of the saved animals adorn the office walls. 

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There’s Audrey, a turtle who was forced to live in a bucket for years. And there are sheep and cows that otherwise would have been sent to the slaughter.

For White, who is running in Toronto’s University—Rosedale riding, the way we treat animals is directly linked to climate change, particularly when it comes to animal agriculture

“It’s because of our relationship with animals, which is extremely destructive, that we are finding ourselves in this place where we have a pending global catastrophe,” White says, pointing to booklets and brochures outlining her party’s platform

It includes setting up a Minister for the Animals to implement policies that would “ultimately end their exploitation.”

Animal Protection Party founder, Liz White. Handout

“We are talking about huge industrialization of animal agriculture. I can’t find a party that really wants to deal with that except ours. And I think it’s a tragic mistake.”

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Hers is one of more than a dozen registered political parties in Canada running this election against the established parties like the Liberals, Conservatives and the NDP. But the odds are stacked against them and they likely won’t win. Some have been around for more than 30 years and have never come close to winning a single seat.

But they nevertheless make a go of it in hopes of moving the needle a bit for their cause.

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“Fringe parties” preparing for upcoming election – Aug 29, 2019

There are currently 21 federal political parties registered with Elections Canada — the highest number ever. Eight became registered this year in time for the election, including the more well-known People’s Party of Canada (PPC), and other much smaller ones such as the Stop Climate Change party and Canada’s Fourth Front.

The emergence of the far-right National Citizens Alliance of Canada and the Canadian Nationalist Party, both of which became registered this year, has prompted criticism from anti-hate groups who say this points to the problems with letting anyone register a federal party, regardless of their ideology. 

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But for White, it’s important to let everyone into the political fold, including those with whom you disagree. She said that her party and the others often have heated disagreements when they all meet together with Elections Canada once a year.

“I think it’s healthier to have it out there and to have public discourse and have people say to those people, ‘that’s not acceptable’,” White said. “Not to hide it. Because it’s there anyway. You need to find a way to deal with these people one way or the other.”

READ MORE: Canadian Nationalist Party granted eligibility to become a registered party in the upcoming federal election

The PPC, led by former Conservative MP Maxime Bernier, calls itself the fastest-growing new political party in Canada with more than 300 candidates running in the 338 federal ridings in just a year since it was founded. Bernier also got himself into the federal leaders’ debates, after initially being rejected, due to the high number of candidates running and after successfully arguing that at least more than one had a reasonable chance of winning.

Coreen Corcoran, president of the Libertarian Party of Canada who is running in the Ottawa-Centre riding last held by Liberal MP Catherine McKenna, said the popularity and ideals of the PPC resulted in the loss of many potential candidates for her party. 

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“A couple years ago, our plan was to run 388 [candidates] in this year’s election,” she said in an interview. “Then the PPC came on board. They had a direct hit on our party, absolutely a direct hit. Because Maxime Bernier was, to many libertarians, a libertarian guy.” 

Corcoran said that the draw of Bernier coupled with the way his ideas encompassed some libertarian values made it appealing to a lot of those who had previously allied themselves with her party.

And as someone who runs the party on a volunteer basis in her spare time, that was disheartening.

“That’s the reality for small parties.”

She added that this election will be important in determining the future of her party, which is running a couple dozen candidates this year on a platform that champions a “free market economy where entrepreneurs and employees can flourish.”

A lot depends on the success of the PPC.

“If they do well, then it may hurt us again. If they don’t do well, I think it could end up helping us,” Corcoran said. “It could have people coming back to us, people finding us. Who knows.”

But the growth and momentum seen by the PPC is rare for a new party.

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“In order to pierce all of the political noise out there, it’s very difficult for a small party to do that,” White said.  

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The satirical Rhinoceros Party has been able to boost its profile slightly through Bernier by running a candidate named Maxime Bernier in his riding of Beauce, Que., in an apparent attempt to bring about confusion.

The party, which has been around since the 1960s but was renamed and re-registered in 2006, makes a number of electoral promises in jest such as abolishing the Law of Gravity “because it is illegal and has never been voted in the Canadian Parliament.”

“This is like, we’ll switch the roles. And we’ll see if people like me more than him!” the Rhinoceros Party’s Maxime Bernier told CBC News regarding his bid against the PPC leader Bernier.

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“It’s like a payback, but without any bad (intentions).”

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One of the oldest political parties in Canada is the Christian Heritage Party (CHP), which aims to govern the country according to Christian values. It also calls itself “Canada’s only pro-life federal political party.” It was founded in 1987, and has run many candidates since then, sometimes under “no affiliation.” It only became officially registered in 2004.

Candidates for the party have garnered, at most, around three per cent of the vote in their respective ridings — not even a blip nationally.

Rod Taylor is the leader of the CHP and is running in the Skeena-Bulkley Valley riding that comprises a majority of the northwestern part of British Columbia. It was last held by NDP MP Nathan Cullen. The CHP has 50 other candidates across the country. 

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READ MORE: Underdog Lethbridge candidates beefing up federal election campaigns

Taylor said he has spent more than 120 days away from home since January working on building the party’s profile, something he’s been working on for decades.

“I’m very excited about this campaign,” Taylor said in an interview. “We have not yet elected anyone to office. But when we elect our first MP, that will shift the political landscape.” 

Taylor, a former sawmill worker, recalls attending one of the party’s first meetings in the late 80s around a ping pong table in a basement in Surrey, B.C.

“Most of the big parties were ignoring the issues important to us,” he said.

Rod Taylor, leader of the Christian Heritage Party. Facebook / Christian Heritage Party

Taylor said that he and his fellow party members are concerned with what he described as the “promotion of the LGBT agenda in the public school system,” a lack of restrictions around abortion access, and a large federal deficit.

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He said CHP members would stick with their personal convictions, no matter what. 

“We declare our positions on the campaign trail, and if people give us the opportunity to represent them in Ottawa, we could never violate our conscience on issues of life, marriage and biblical truth, which we think of as good for the country.”

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A significant barrier for smaller parties is Canada’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) electoral regime, in which the candidate who gets the highest number of votes wins the right to represent that riding in the House of Commons. But candidates do not need an absolute majority — more than 50 per cent of votes — in order to win. 

FPTP can also encourage strategic voting, where voters may cast a ballot for the candidate who is more likely to defeat another candidate they dislike, rather than cast a ballot for the candidate they would actually prefer.

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“The role of the smaller party is to advocate for proportional representation and for other progressive things,” White, of the Animal Protection Party, continued. 

Proportional representation differs from FPTP in that several representatives can be elected at once in proportion to the number of votes they receive.

“The bigger parties would prefer we not be there because they like to set the agenda and only talk about what they want to talk about. Our goal is to not let them do that,” she said.

READ MORE: NDP to remind Liberals of broken electoral reform promise before final debate

One way she plans to knock parties off their talking points is through local all-candidates debates, in which she and her party’s 18 candidates will challenge other parties about their climate change proposals. 

And during the off-season, the years in between federal elections, many small parties continue their advocacy or run candidates in provincial and municipal elections.

The Marijuana Party of Canada, which was registered in 2000 and usually runs a handful of candidates in the federal elections, has been outspoken against the legalization of cannabis in its current form, arguing that it favours large corporations and has imposed a number of new provisions in the Criminal Code.

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“It’s more criminalized than ever before,” party leader Blair Longley said in an interview from his bedroom in Montreal, where he runs most of the party’s logistics.

Longley said he and his candidates will continue to push back against legalization as it exists now.

READ MORE: N.L. Marijuana Party hopeful misses nomination deadline over paperwork confusion

As for the potential to end up with a seat in the House of Commons, Carleton University political science professor Jon Pammett said the Green Party can serve as a model.

Though the Green Party was registered in 1984, leader Elizabeth May secured the party’s first seat nearly 30 years later in 2011. Paul Manly secured its second seat in May, along with significant gains made by the party’s provincial counterparts.

“It wasn’t that long ago that the Green Party was considered to be on the fringes,” Pammett said in an interview. “Now, all of a sudden, they’re a reasonably major party, one that’s in the competitive mix.

“It’s a bit of an inspiration to these other parties.”

Pammett added that ideologies held by the parties like the Greens can also be taken up by the bigger parties. For instance, the Green Party’s stances on climate change may help influence others, depending on how popular they are among voters.

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It’s something that White hopes to emulate with the Animal Protection Party.

“If we are noisy enough, pushy enough, mouthy enough, aggressive enough, about challenging the other parties to do better, that, in fact, they will do better,” she said.

But we can’t do it ourselves, we aren’t elected. We need everybody to do it.”

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