Why Bernier's PPC polls higher in Alberta than anywhere else

Bradley Johner describes himself as an oddball in Alberta terms — because he hasn't always voted Conservative.

The 26-year-old was raised in Grimshaw, a small northern Alberta town where 70 per cent of residents voted Tory in the last federal election.

He now lives in Didsbury, where he works in one of Alberta's burgeoning non-oil-and-gas industries: cannabis. Didsbury is slightly less blue than Grimshaw, but only by a small margin (64 per cent voted Conservative in 2015). Johner has voted Conservative in the past, but in 2015 he switched party allegiances.

"I voted Justin, you know, in 2015, like the rest of people my age … [but] he's really messed things up," Johner said.

That displeasure doesn't mean he plans to vote Conservative again. Instead, this election, you can find Johner out doorknocking for his local People's Party of Canada candidate.

The PPC, led by Maxime Bernier, is polling higher in Alberta than elsewhere in Canada, even higher than Bernier's home province of Quebec. 

Making gains

Formed just weeks after Bernier resigned from the Conservative Party last year, following his failed bid in 2017 to lead the federal Tories, the PPC has gone from non-existent to running a candidate in each of the country's 338 ridings.

It's polling at 3.4 per cent in Alberta, while it sits at just 2.3 per cent in Quebec and 2.6 per cent nationwide, according to CBC's Poll Tracker.

Those numbers aren't high enough that the party will necessarily make a breakthrough, even in Alberta.

The party and its leader have been repeatedly accused of being "anti-immigrant," but Bernier has repeatedly said the PPC is not pushing policies that reflect anti-immigrant values.

"It is not true, they just have to go look at our policy," Bernier told a Saskatoon crowd in one instance, last November. "We know that this country has been built by immigrants, and we want our country to be like that 20 years from now."

Instead, Bernier says the PPC believes current immigration levels aren't sustainable. The party has proposed more than halving the annual number of immigrants, dropping it from 321,045 (in 2018) to between 100,000 and 150,000. The PPC also wants Canada to accept fewer refugees and promises to make the entire border an official port of entry, fencing off "problem" areas and sending back anyone caught crossing illegally.

However, he has made controversial statements and decisions more than once since he announced the formation of his party — stating he will tackle "extreme multiculturalism," bringing a 9-11 conspiracy theorist on as a candidate, saying blackface is a "non-existent phenomenon." 

Helen Pike/CBC

He drew further controversy on a visit to Calgary in July, when he posed for a photo with members of an organization described as a hate group. The photo shows the PPC leader in a cowboy hat posing with men who are wearing vests with patches depicting the emblem of Northern Guard. 

One of the men flashes a hand gesture that the American Anti-Defamation League says has been used by white supremacists, ironically or sincerely, to symbolize white power. The symbol was infamously flashed during a mid-March court appearance by the man who is accused of killing 51 people in a gun attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand on March 15.

A spokesperson for Bernier said at the time that he takes many pictures with people and does not inquire in advance about their views, adding that Bernier wasn't aware of the group.

The People's Party of Canada also drew criticism in August when a third-party advertising group plastered billboards across the country, including Alberta. The billboards showed Bernier's face, the PPC logo and a slogan advocating against "mass immigration." They were pulled down after public outcry.

While Bernier said his party didn't put up the billboards, he agreed with the message and was unhappy with their removal, which he blamed on a "totalitarian leftist mob."

YYCantiracist/Twitter

It all invites the question: Why is the party gaining its strongest support in Alberta, a province whose premier has vowed to attract more immigrants to rural ridings?

Earlier this year, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney swept to power with a majority government. Like Bernier, Kenney has been described as a populist. 

But when it comes to immigration, the provincial leader and federal leader's platforms could not be more different.

Kenney served as immigration minister for the federal Conservatives from 2008 to 2013, working to attract the multicultural vote for the party. In his platform this year, he announced a plan to address population decline in rural Alberta and reinvigorate the province's economy by bringing 10,000 newcomers to rural parts of the province every year.

A focus on 'unsustainable' immigration

Foothills PPC candidate Greg Hession said while immigration isn't a major issue that's come up in his riding, it is important.

"This is a national matter, so we need to look beyond the borders of our own riding to other parts of the country where these policies are going to be more important because you need to be able to see the trends. If you fail to see the trends then by the time it affects you personally and your community, then the work that you have cut out for you to correct course is bigger," Hession said.

"I've heard concerns from people in different communities within our riding that the immigration that they're seeing is unsustainable and that there's really no job market for people to enter into."

Alberta has been in the midst of a slow economic recovery so it's no surprise jobs are at the forefront of campaigning in the province. However, research done in other countries has shown mixed results over whether populist or anti-immigration sentiments are pushed by primarily economic or cultural angst.

A poll from Ipsos in January found six in 10 Canadians feel immigrants place too much pressure on public services.

And a poll conducted by EKOS a few months later found 39 per cent of Canadians and 56 per cent of Albertans (the highest number in the country) think too many of those immigrating to Canada are "members of visible minorities."

Hession said he would describe those who connect the party's immigration policies to accusations of racism against party members or the party's leader as "gaslighting."

"These are political warfare tactics used by our opposition … I find it quite juvenile," he said, adding that the party has candidates from every "race, creed and colour."

More than economics

Lori Williams, a political scientist from Mount Royal University, said libertarian or populist sentiments are strong in southern Alberta.

"I think people that are more suspicious of governments, wanting to reduce the size and cost of government, certain elements of what used to be the Reform Party platform, seem to be attracted to that kind of party. And there are more of them historically that live in southern and rural parts of Alberta."

But, she said, libertarian-leaning supporters of the PPC may want to think hard about the other outcomes of supporting anti-mass-immigration policy for economic reasons.

"Immigration may not be the primary reason somebody supports the People's Party of Canada, but one of the key platform planks is a significant — in fact, pretty radical — reduction in immigration to Canada and changing which kinds of people are allowed to immigrate," said Williams.

"So, if you're voting for the People's Party candidate, and if it were to, say, either form government or be the balance of power in a minority government situation, that vote would be authorizing or supporting reduction of immigration into Canada. [It] would be about half of what it is currently and it would be primarily economic based. It would reduce the number of refugees."

For Johner, immigration isn't a key issue and it's not one that would ever sway his vote. 

And while he says racism is a problem in Alberta, he doesn't see it playing into the party's immigration policies.

"[The immigration policy] is not what brings me into his party. And personally, I think it will affect him in some areas of the country," he said. 

"It's a tough topic when you talk about immigration, right? That's a fine line to walk on. But that's Max, that's his backbone. He's not scared to have that difficult conversation."