SAINT-GEORGES-DE-BEAUCE, Que. — Maxime Bernier, leader of the People's Party of Canada, has shaped his political persona in the mould of his home region of the Beauce: fiercely independent, industrious, entrepreneurial.
But since he slammed the door on the Conservatives in 2018 and started his own right-wing political party, he has tested the loyalties of the people from this unique part of Quebec.
A hilly territory of small towns dotted along the Chaudiere River between Quebec City and the border with Maine, the Beauce has kept Bernier, and before him his father Gilles, in the House of Commons for a combined 26 years.
Now, Bernier is fighting for his political survival. He is dogged by accusations that he's done little to weed out racists and conspiracy theorists from his own ranks, and he faces a vengeful Tory machine bent on burying his political career.
Beauce voters, who describe themselves as loyal to the candidate and not the political party, have to decide whether to stick with someone who will likely never become prime minister and who runs a new party given little chance of winning more than a seat or two.
Polling indicates Beauce is up for grabs, and Bernier and his Conservative rival, Richard Lehoux, are in a statistical tie to represent the "Beaucerons" in Ottawa.
Michelle Buteau owns a flower shop in the largest Beauce town, St-Georges. Its population is just 32,000, but the streets are often clogged with pickup trucks, SUVs, and three-wheeled motorcycles.
"He's a legend here — like his father," Buteau said of Bernier. "But I don't think he's going to win with what I'm hearing, in restaurants .... I don't think he'll win this year."
At a food market a few minutes' drive away, past the fresh fruit and baked goods, Suzanne Richard, 68, and Remi Lapointe, 75, sat around a circular table talking with friends.
Richard and Lapointe voted Liberal in 2015, but they said Justin Trudeau has disappointed them over the last four years. And after Trudeau suggested his government could challenge Quebec's secularism law, Richard said, "That was it for us."
Bill 21 prohibits some public sector workers from wearing religious symbols at work. Richard said she is turning towards the Bloc Quebecois, the party that is staunchly defending the legislation. The PPC has also committed to staying out of Quebec's way on Bill 21, but Lapointe said Bernier's party will be lucky to win a single seat in Parliament.
"And we like (Andrew) Scheer," Richard said of the Conservative leader. "But we have trouble understanding him when he talks. We have to really focus on the television when he speaks, because he has a heavy accent when he speaks French."
Bernier lost to Scheer by less than two percentage points in the 2017 race for Tory leader. The PPC leader attributed his loss to a concerted campaign by Quebec dairy farmers, upset that Bernier was proposing to end supply management — the federal system that protects egg, dairy and poultry farmers from foreign competition.
After having won the Beauce riding for the Tories in the 2006, 2008, 2011 and 2015 elections, Bernier declared the Conservatives "too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed" and launched the PPC in September 2018.
The PPC campaign began as a movement against the status quo in Canada, focusing on ideas for wealth creation by cutting taxes and corporate subsidies as well as encouraging provinces to develop their natural resources. "I think it's motivating and exalting when we defend ideas that are at the foundation of western civilization," Bernier told The Canadian Press in late 2018.
But in subsequent months, Bernier seemed to pivot hard towards identity politics. He now promises to end "official multiculturalism" in Canada and "substantially lower" the number of immigrants accepted by Canada — cutting immigration levels by more than half.
Bernier has repeatedly said racists aren't welcome in his party. But several former members have stated the PPC is attracting racists and conspiracy theorists and that Bernier hasn't done enough to call them out.
Lina Lessard, who works in a St-Georges clothing store owned by her sister, said she appreciates Bernier's straight-talking. He won't ever be prime minister, she said, "but he has a backbone. He is an honest man. Other politicians just say what they think you want to hear."
Farmland dominates the Beauce landscape, where car dealerships can sit next to cow stables. A few minutes' drive from Lessard's store are the 50 dairy cows belonging to Sylvain Bolduc.
The region's rolling hills, and it's cold weather, make agriculture more difficult compared with the flatlands south of Montreal, he explained. Dairy production has increased over the past 10 years and Bernier's policy to end supply management was a slap in the face to the region's farmers, he said. "My choice will be an anti-Maxime vote — that's for sure."
A 30-minute drive north up the Chaudiere River lies the town of Ste-Marie, with a population of about 13,000 people. Ste-Marie was hit hard by spring flooding last April, and the local government is in the process of demolishing roughly 200 homes and businesses.
Sipping from an apple juice box in his Ste-Marie campaign office, located not far from a convenience store that sells hunting rifles, Conservative candidate Richard Lehoux played down the idea that residents vote for the candidate more than the party.
"I think Beauce is more conservative," he said. Since the time of the first settlers to the area, the "Beauceron" people were separated from the power centre in Quebec City by thick forests and muddy wetlands, "and we had to get on by ourselves."
In the early days of the French colony Beauce farmers, wearing their "jarrets noirs" (muddy boots) were easily identifiable in the capital selling their produce and other goods. The "jarrets noirs" term has been embraced by locals and is the official name of their senior men's baseball team.
Lehoux, a former dairy farmer who had a herd of Holstein cattle, says he is running against not just Bernier but the PPC leader's father too. Gilles Bernier, who represented Beauce for the Progressive Conservatives from 1984 to 1993 and then as an Independent until 1997, continues to be a presence in the riding, Lehoux said.
He said voters feel pressure to stay loyal to the family. "People have a lot of respect for Gilles," Lehoux said. "But I tell them, 'I trust you — on voting day it will be just you in the booth. No one else will know.' "
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2019.
Giuseppe Valiante, The Canadian Press