Chairman's Desk

The pandemic has emboldened supporters of the People’s Party of Canada. Whoever forms government will need to contend with them for years to come

One of the most unfortunate stories from this campaign is that of the People’s Party of Canada (PPC). Once an annoying, perhaps even amusing, splinter group, the collective has now firmly found its place, alone, along on the extremist fringe.

Two years ago, the PPC was a quaint curiosity for journalists to cover on a slow week. In the context of the pandemic, it has festered into something much worse, something that will pose a serious challenge for either a new or returning government to address.

Many commentators are fixated on the idea that the Conservative Party of Canada is bleeding support to Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party at such levels that crucial ridings will be lost. In 2019, that was certainly the case — and to some extent polling for this election tells a similar story.

As I see it, there is a more important political phenomena — one that will be a lasting legacy of this election — at play: the rise of “pandemic libertarians.” Coined by me, pandemic libertarians is a term that describes those politic zealots who have emerged during this campaign, intent on raising hell.

Nearly impossible to address in standard political terms, this group has a number of unique characteristics.

As many pundits have noted, they are incredibly slippery to capture in polling or research, largely because of their anti-establishment attitude.

What’s more, large numbers of them have never been politically engaged in their lives. But now, furious about lockdowns and feeling isolated from the mainstream of Canadian politics, they have entered the fray comforted by parties like the PPC which encourage their conspiracy-minded disruption and seek to legitimize their behaviour.

To be clear, Maxime Bernier is no Donald Trump, but like Trump, he understands that this demographic is powerful precisely because they feel voiceless. Now, having found a megaphone, they are motivated like mad to get involved in this election.

Unfortunately for the rest of Canadians, that involvement extends well beyond the polling booth to hospitals and campaign events.

It is, needless to say, unforgivable that anyone would choose to mob a location where people are receiving urgent medical care. But it speaks volumes about the state of our politics that such behaviour has been normalized.

At the same time, there is no reason for elected officials to be subject to the kind of vitriol we have seen in this campaign. Justin Trudeau, Erin O’Toole, Jagmeet Singh and others have all dealt gracefully with repulsive behaviour that would be utterly staggering were it not so commonplace.

For years, politicians like Michelle Rempel Garner and Catherine McKenna have warned of the violent rhetoric permeating our politics. Even before COVID, our politicians — and particularly the women among them — have been targeted by the worst of our country.

But today the issue is bigger. These malcontents have reached a critical mass that is angrier, louder and less encumbered by the bounds of logic or decency than any political presence in our country since the mid-twentieth century.

And much like the followers of Donald Trump in the U.S., they are not going away anytime soon. The sense of victimization and exceptionalism bred by the notion that they alone understand reality, while all of us are blind sheep, is intoxicating. So, like zealots of the worst sort, they will evangelize their warped view of the world the only way they know how: by making lots of noise and attacking anyone with a podium.

Along the way, civil discourse — so central to who we are as a nation — will be hopelessly corroded, while decent people across Canada grow warier of entering politics or engaging in public debate.

Mr. Bernier’s party may fizzle out this week, but its most problematic followers are not going away anytime soon. Whoever forms government this week would be well advised not to ignore them or simply label them nutjobs. Sadly, they are now a part of this country.

While they may not have any role to play in our government, left unchecked, they will no doubt shift our politics. And that may end up being much more dangerous than it appears right now.

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on September 19, 2021.

Read More