BURNABY—When Ivan Pak went to Maxime Bernier’s first rally in Vancouver last November, he says he was “inspired” by the new party leader’s clear platform and policy commitments.
That’s the kind of leader Canada needs, he told Star Vancouver.
Bernier announced the “death of political correctness” via a Tweet last fall to his then 65,000 followers and launched the People’s Party of Canada, which has been gaining rapid traction. Widely viewed as aiming further right of the Conservative party, the PPC has been criticized for being anti-immigrant and espousing anti-globalist values and rhetoric.
But Pak, a first-generation immigrant from China, dispels those critiques as myths.
“Some people accuse the PPC of being a white people’s party of Canada, but for myself … I learned to speak English here. I’ve been here 22 years,” he said on Thursday, holding up PPC signs waiting for Bernier to make his first appearance in Burnaby South since Monday’s byelection was called in the riding.
“PPC welcomes people like me to be part of their party as long as we share the same Canadian values.”
But experts say core Canadian values are now divided and there’s very little common ground.
Michael Valpy is a senior fellow in public policy at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and a former Globe and Mail journalist who has been tracking the rise of ordered populism in Canada — or what economists refer to as “drawbridge-up” thinking.
Its proponents are often hostile toward immigration, deeply pessimistic about their economic future, mostly male and mainly white, he said. At Bernier’s event on Thursday in Burnaby South, this demographic was also present.
Nathaniel Allen, 30, told the Star he was a BC Liberal — the provincial party widely known to embrace conservative policies — 12 years ago until he lost interest. It wasn’t until the PPC came along that he found himself civically engaged.
“It just felt like the most pragmatic decision I could make,” he explained.
A Star investigation found that far-right supporters have called on their members to infiltrate the PPC, whether the party is willing or not. As the extreme right has done elsewhere, they hope to move on a new party, bit by bit, to bring the political extreme toward the mainstream.
Meanwhile, the yellow vest faction — which started as a labour movement in France but has expanded in Canada beyond economic concerns, delving into anti-globalism, nationalism, anti-government sentiment and xenophobia — looks like it’s here to stay.
Bernier was there to greet the United We Roll convoy when it arrived in Ottawa last Tuesday. The former federal Conservative cabinet minister, standing beside a man in a yellow vest, told the crowd he was there to promote Canadian unity.
Canadians are increasingly opposed to more immigration — and it remains to be seen how that will play out in October’s federal election, Valpy said.
Anti-immigrant sentiments often depend on the makeup of neighbourhoods, he added, pointing to the suburban area surrounding Toronto, known as the 905 because of its area code, which is “quite strongly” anti-immigrant despite not being a white majority community.
That’s because if communities are homogenous — for instance, predominantly white, brown or Asian — anti-immigrant views can emerge. However, Valpy said, if neighbourhoods are mixed, anti-immigrant views are unlikely.
“Ethnic attachment is declining and has declined quite rapidly,” he explained in an interview, citing data from Ottawa-based pollster EKOS Research Associates. “It’s no longer important to us that all our friends are all white, or we live in a brown community.”
Valpy said unless there is some shift in inequality or people’s sense that progress is lost, ordered populism is here for the long haul.
According to Ivan Pak and the PPC, the principles guiding Canadian values are freedom, personal responsibility, respect and fairness.
Pak was a vocal opponent of the provincial education inclusion program for sexual identity and gender fluidity. He ran unsuccessfully on that platform for school trustee in Richmond in last fall’s municipal election. As president of the PPC Richmond Centre EDA, he isn’t eligible to vote in Monday’s byelection.
The PPC has promised to lower taxes, abolish corporate welfare and stop supply management. On Thursday, Bernier also said he would privatize Canada Post and abolish the CRTC.
The party has formed electoral district associations in all of Canada’s 338 ridings and Bernier has said he will run a full slate of candidates in October’s general election.
Pak said he was no longer keen on the Conservatives because the party has a “lack of leadership ability” (referring to its leader, Andrew Scheer) and “no clean platform.” He also slammed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“When you ask a question in the House of Commons, he never answers it. Is the question period just a joke? It looks like drama,” he said. “Our country is in debt and that debt has to be paid somehow. It will be my children and grandchildren suffering.”
Pak was one of many other Chinese-Canadians greeting Bernier when he visited his Burnaby South byelection candidate — and one of his first picks under the new PPC banner — Laura-Lynn Thompson.
She is a former Christian radio host, anti-abortion activist and a vocal opponent of B.C.’s student education plan on sexual orientation and gender fluidity, with ties to several community churches.
Thompson told the Star last week she’s been able to mobilize the socially conservative Chinese-Canadian vote — and those ties may explain why.
During each byelection debate, Thompson directly appealed to prevalent anxieties in the riding about public safety as she repeatedly brought up the case of Marrisa Shen, a 13-year-old girl killed in a Burnaby South park in July 2017. A Syrian refugee has been charged with murder in her death.
Meanwhile, several PPC supporters at the event on Thursday told the Star they were “sick” of identity politics at play in Canada. Sherolinnah Eang said she became a full-fledged PPC supporter after hearing the messaging about “family values and free speech.”
“This is the first time I’ve come out for something like this, and I’ve lived in Canada for 45 years,” she said.
Burnaby has four distinct town “centres,” a long working-class history and a population density triple that of the region. Its demographics are increasingly young and non-white, according to the 2016 census, and the average age is several years below B.C.’s average, while 64 per cent of its population identifies as a visible minority.
On Thursday, Bernier argued diversity is not Canada’s strength — it’s unity. Asked how that message would land in such an ethnically diverse riding, he responded: “Yes, but they are Canadians first.”
The response prompted cheers from PPC supporters, with several shouting: “I’m an immigrant.”
Thompson, who uttered “Canadians first” at every byelection debate, will face off against federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — vying for his first seat in the House of Commons — Liberal Richard Lee, Conservative Jay Shin and independents Valentine Wu and Terry Grimwood on Monday in Burnaby South.
Byelections will also be held that day in York—Simcoe, Ont. and in Outremont, Que.
David Moscrop, author of the new book Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones, and a post-doctoral fellow in the University of Ottawa’s communications department, told the Star that while feelings of anti-globalism and xenophobia have always existed, they haven’t always had an electoral home.
Moscrop said this is the perfect time for the PPC to do well because it can focus on locking down a smaller segment of the electorate. And there’s enough disaffection, which could express itself as support for the right-wing party.
“This party didn’t even exist 15 minutes ago, so if (Laura-Lynn Thompson) can nab even 10 per cent, Bernier will be crowing for months,” he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more likely PPC voters than would self-report … because sometimes people won’t admit something to a pollster. But behind the privacy of the voting screen? Many may mark an X for that candidate.”
Melanie Green is a Vancouver-based reporter covering food, culture and policy. Follow her on Twitter: @mdgmedia
David P. Ball is a Vancouver-based reporter covering democracy and politics. Follow him on Twitter: @davidpball