Maxime Bernier. Image: Maxime Bernier/Twitter

Viewers of Monday night’s leaders’ debate caught a glimpse of an ugly trend emerging in Canadian politics.

In the first round of questions, CTV’s Lisa Laflamme read out some of the most divisive tweets authored by People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier:

“You called diversity in Canada a cult and extreme multiculturalism. You’ve used the words ghetto and tribes to describe newcomers whom you say bring distrust and potential violence. On Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate change activist, you called her, quote, clearly mentally unstable. Are these the words of someone with the character and integrity to lead all Canadians and represent us on the world stage?”

By way of a response, Bernier labelled all the other party leaders “globalist,” (a term that carries anti-Semitic undertones) and said he wanted to stop Canada from becoming “like other countries in Europe,” where, he claimed, “they have a huge difficulty to integrate their immigrants.” After being called out by Jagmeet Singh, Bernier fumed against what he described as the NDP leader’s “socialist policy.”

And so the rest of his debate performance continued in similar fashion.

But Bernier’s comments, and his presence on the debate stage, marked only one example of reactionary politics stealing moments under the spotlight this election cycle.

The day after the writs dropped for the election, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was forced to drop Winnipeg North candidate Cameron Ogilvie after PressProgress unearthed a series of islamophobic and anti-immigrant Facebook posts shared by the Tory nominee. Last week in Burnaby North-Seymour, meanwhile, the Conservatives ejected candidate Heather Leung, after a video resurfaced of her making homophobic and transphobic comments in 2011 (her opposition to LGBTQ and abortion rights were already widely known before the video came to light).

The People’s Party may only be polling in low single digits — and a struggling Andrew Scheer may have booted a few of the most openly hateful social conservatives from his party — but analysts agree that something deeper in the public discourse is changing.

“I think there is a general dwindling of civility in this election,” professor Barbara Perry, director of the Centre on Hate, Bias and Extremism at Ontario Tech University, told “Polarization is a consistent theme, pitting an array of communities against one another, vilifying some, marginalizing others.”

Because the People’s Party serves as a “safe space” for some of Canada’s extreme right-wing elements, Perry added, Bernier’s railing against immigrants risks inuring the public against xenophobic sentiments.

“The presence of the party is part of a broader environment of hate — one also occupied by the likes of  [Donald] Trump, [Doug] Ford and other similar fear-mongers.”

British Columbia NDP vice-president and LGBTQ activist Morgane Oger noted that even though Bernier’s party currently sits on the statistical fringes, the PPC’s extreme positions also frequently translate into personal attacks via social media.

“They may not be a party that I would consider eligible for participating,” Oger explained. “It’s the conduct, not the ideas that are the problem.”

Back in January, Oger said she believed that reactionary parties like the PPC become more self-destructive the more loudly they express their views. That’s an assessment she stands by.

“There’s the terrifying fear that the PPC are the birth of fascism in Canada,” she noted. However, Oger continued, “I think it’s so much better to have them out in the open saying awful things, and saying things that are obviously reprehensible, rather than doing it quietly.”

By contrast, Oger said, cases of extreme right-wing candidates breezing through the Conservative party vetting process are much more alarming.

“If Heather Leung had been a little bit more subtle in her anti-LGBTQ views, she would have been a very effective tool for social conservative extremism. Luckily for all of us, she went too far.”

Oger’s observation here might serve as a sobering reminder that Bernier came very close to winning the Conservative party leadership race in 2017. While Bernier might not be openly scorning “globalists” if he was at the helm of a mainstream party, it’s troubling to see how quickly a former cabinet minister under Stephen Harper courted extreme views once they provided a timely political opportunity.

“Some politicians have no soul, and are willing to do and say anything for power,” Oger said. “I find it chilling to see people trying to be elected by picking whatever they think will win, and that Maxime Bernier went to, basically fascism, to try to win.”

In other words, don’t count on right-wing political officials to properly check the spread of extremism within their party ranks anytime soon.

“In the end … this problem reaches far beyond the campaign trail, and requires concentrated attention to how to begin to deconstruct the walls that are being built between communities,” said Perry. “The voting public also has a role to play in identifying and calling out those who engage in hateful narratives.”

Alex Cosh is a journalist and PhD student based in Powell River, B.C. His work has appeared on PressProgressLeft Foot Forward and in several local B.C. publications.

Image: Maxime Bernier/Twitter