OTTAWA — Freedom is at the heart of Maxime Bernier's platform in his campaign for the leadership of the federal Conservatives.
The MP and former cabinet minister rails at length at what he calls the cartel in the dairy and poultry industries, promising to abolish the supply management system if elected. He's equally adamant that no company — not even those dear to his longtime constituents in Quebec, like aerospace giant Bombardier — will ever get a dime in government support.
That's the economic side. But freedom is also something Bernier takes personally.
Where he himself stands on abortion rights, he won't say. When asked whether he believes people are responsible for global warming, he doesn't directly answer. Should marijuana be legalized? He's taking a wait-and-see approach.
To Bernier, freedom also means everyone has a right to an opinion on those subjects and as leader, he doesn't want his to get in the way.
"If I am the leader of the party, I don't want to give a direction to my party on my personal belief," Bernier said during a lengthy interview with The Canadian Press where was pressed repeatedly on his personal opinion on abortion.
So, should he emerge the victor next month when Conservative party members gather to vote, and then become prime minister, he'd have no problem if an MP wants to bring forward a bill that would reopen the abortion debate.
"If you ask me if I am a pro-choice guy or a pro-life guy, it will depend on that bill," Bernier said.
It's a position likely to win support among social conservatives, though he's not on side with them entirely. He says he's proud the party voted to abolish language in the policy handbook seen as opposing same-sex marriage. Of candidates in the race who say otherwise, it's not an opinion he shares.
Another opinion he says he doesn't support is that of Conservative Sen. Lynn Beyak, who has defended the residential school system and expressed frustration that there's not been enough focus on the good done there.
But she's still allowed to have the opinion, he said, refusing to say whether he'd keep her in caucus if he were leader. Late Wednesday, the senator was removed from the aboriginal affairs committee.
That being said, he's still happy to have her endorsement among the dozens of politicos backing his campaign, a list that's grown to see Bernier's polling at the front of the 14-member leadership pack.
It's been a long road.
While beloved in his riding of Beauce, Que., he was a virtual unknown throughout the rest of the country save for an incident in 2007 where he forgot a briefcase of classified documents at a girlfriend's house, costing him his job as minister of foreign affairs.
He remained largely in the political shadows for years, except in Quebec, where his willingness to slay the sacred cow of supply management has always brought attention. He was the first to join the leadership race, deploying volunteers in T-shirts with his name at a conservative conference in Ottawa in 2016 before the rules of the contest had even been laid down.
He likens his vision to that of former Ontario premier Mike Harris and the so-called Common Sense Revolution, a plan that won the Progressive Conservatives a mandate thanks to a platform rolled out long before the writ was dropped.
Though Bernier's campaign has attracted a roster of conservatives, Harris isn't among them. He's backing Bernier's closest rival in the race, celebrity businessman Kevin O'Leary.
Bernier said he thinks the unilingual O'Leary is the perfect foil.
"Mr O'Leary ... has good slogans but he doesn't have a platform," Bernier said. "I have an advantage in my platform because that's what the members want to hear, they are ready for reform."
Bernier's approach to nearly all problems is to get the government out of the way and set the market free.
While the Liberals may be gunning for the middle class, Bernier said his ideas will benefit the entire spectrum of Canadians — from mom-and-pop stores who can't afford lobbyists to get Liberal government grants, to indigenous people stuck in a cycle of poverty and violence.
Helping low income Canadians at home means helping fewer abroad, he suggested, arguing he'd take money currently being spent on addressing climate change in Africa and redirect it to tax breaks at home.
Climate change — I'm not a scientist, said Bernier, so he won't declare his own beliefs on the subject — is also a business issue. Give businesses incentives to create new technologies to help mitigate greenhouse gases, and they will, he said.
"They can call me a fiscal conservative, they can call me a conservative who believes in freedom, they can call me reasonable libertarian, call me anything you want — call me Max, call me Maxime, call me 'Mad Max,' maybe," he said.
"I think we have a great future if we have a platform that will be in line with our principles."
Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press