ST-GEORGES-DE-BEAUCE — For Serge Giroux, Maxime Bernier has turned into a major letdown.
“I voted for him in the past,” the retired Giroux said, standing a few metres from Bernier’s Beauce riding office. “This time, it’s no.”
“He’s not a bad guy, but he’s had his time.”
Founding a new party and striking on his own, as Bernier is trying to do, is a risky venture. But the real test comes when you have to face the voters back home.
The question for them is clear: Do they stick with the man, or the Conservative party he started with?
Giroux does not believe a lone politician with an unproven political organization has the same clout as one working with a big-league party.
Polling at about two per cent nationally, it’s unclear whether Bernier’s new People’s Party of Canada will win any seats. Bernier himself is fighting for his own political survival in the Beauce.
Giroux is also not pleased with Bernier’s stance against the supply management system. Agriculture in the Beauce employs 3,000 people and represents 20 per cent of the economy.
“He’s working against the farmers,” Giroux said, confirming he will vote for the Conservatives’ new candidate, Richard Lehoux, himself a former dairy farmer and former president of the Fédération québécoise des municipalités.
As for the rest of Bernier’s agenda, such as substantially reducing immigration and and abolishing what he calls “extreme multiculturalism,” some here say they can’t quite understand where he is headed.
Not one to mince words, Bernier also denies there is a climate crisis and wants Ottawa to re-assert federal jurisdiction to build oil and gas pipelines.
“A lot of what he says seems quite bizarre,” says Marielle, walking by the river on a sunny fall day. “Here it has always been red or blue.”
“He shot himself in the foot,” adds Lucette. “He is the one who broke up his career path.”
But the Beauce has been Bernier country for a long time.
Maxime Bernier’s father, Gilles Bernier, held the riding as a Conservative and independent from 1984 to 1997. Maxime Bernier has served as MP since 2006.
The still popular Gilles Bernier and his wife have been campaigning on behalf of their son for weeks in the riding, which irritated Bernier’s opponents, who see it as an unfair advantage.
But Bernier has had to explain his decision to ditch the Conservatives following his narrow defeat in 2017 to Andrew Scheer in the party’s leadership race.
Today Maxime Bernier says his old party is “morally and ethically corrupt.” The animosity between the two former rivals is not far from the surface.
“Maxime, you will not be able to impose anything, you won’t even win in the Beauce,” Scheer fired at Bernier in the heat of one of the televised leader’s debates.
“That was very arrogant of him,” Bernier said this week in an interview with the Montreal Gazette. “It is to not know the people of the Beauce. I am pretty confident (of winning) but at the same time I am taking nothing for granted.”
Bernier is skeptical about polls showing his party stalled with Canadians. In the Beauce itself, they show him and Lehoux in a dead heat.
He concedes he has picked a challenging path.
“We are not promising the moon and the stars, we are not trying to buy their votes with the money of their children and grandchildren, which is what the big parties do,” Bernier said.
But the Scheer-Bernier feud continued into the last hours of the campaign. On Friday, Scheer steered his campaign bus back into the Beauce to take a few more potshots at Bernier.
“This is a region that was hit by floods,” Sheer told supporters. “That’s another reason for you to elect an MP who will work for his people and not an MP who focuses only on his personal ambitions.”
Earlier this week, sitting in his campaign office, Lehoux said he respects Gilles Bernier as much as anybody, but says voters are torn. They are basically conservative but not as far to the right as Bernier is.
And they don’t find the PPC’s values reflect their own — openness, sharing and solidarity, he said.
“What I hear from voters is that they say they were conservatives and are staying conservative,” Lehoux said.
Noting local labour shortages, Lehoux said he wants to help businesses cut through bureaucracy to bring in immigrant labour faster.
“What people want is someone who can move their issues ahead,” Lehoux said. “I am here to represent the beaucerons. I have no other agenda.”
Lehoux has the support of local farmers. It was members of the Union des producteurs agricoles who tipped the balance to a Scheer win in 2017 when they bought Conservative membership cards allowing them to vote.
The UPA’s position has not changed. Locally, it’s not hard to find producers unhappy with Bernier’s views.
Standing on a hillside 250-acre farm in St-Simon-les-Mines, Rémi Busque, a third-generation dairy farmer who works the award-winning Ferme Berlyngo with his parents, says Bernier is on the wrong path.
“We won’t be voting for him,” Busque says, noting supply management helps protect Quebec’s family farms by stabilizing revenues. “He’s elsewhere, doing a kind of dark campaign.
“Mr. Lehoux has experience. He will defend all the Beauce people fairly. (Bernier is) going to wake up fired.”