Chantal Hébert: Maxime Bernier keeps the headaches coming for Andrew Scheer
One week before the first Conservative national convention on Andrew Scheer’s leadership watch — and the last such gathering before the next federal election — one would not normally expect Conservative MPs to be debating each other on social media about whether to draw a line on Canada’s diversity.
Against the backdrop of a simmering trade war with the U.S., a high-profile diplomatic contretemps over human rights with Saudi Arabia and a federal-provincial collision in the making over the country’s approach to climate change and carbon-pricing, identity and integration-related issues have been closer to the bottom of the list of ongoing concerns this summer.
That is true even in Quebec, the province that has long been the ground zero of an often-acrimonious political discussion over the balance between the accommodation of cultural minorities and the preservation of a common collective identity.
Against all odds, as Quebec gears up for an election campaign, the secularism issue that has so often dominated the provincial conversation over the past decade appears, at least for now, to be dormant.
The controversial provincial prescription that one can only receive or dispense provincial and municipal services with one’s face uncovered remains suspended as the result of consecutive injunctions that will likely be maintained until the courts pronounce on the substance of the law long after the Oct. 1 election.
At the same time, there has been a noticeable shift in the debate over immigration. Concern over Quebec’s capacity to integrate newcomers in the francophone mainstream is increasingly giving way to a search for optimal ways to address the labour shortages that are resulting from the greying of the province’s population.
That may go some way to explain why this summer’s wave of asylum-seekers using irregular crossing points in Quebec to leave the U.S. for Canada has not caused the kind of stir it did last year. The number of border-crossers is also down by about half compared to last summer.
It is in this relative political quiet that Beauce MP Maxime Bernier fired off a series of tweets last weekend, criticizing what he called Justin Trudeau’s “extreme multiculturalism.” It is Bernier’s contention that more diversity will, in his own words, “destroy what has made Canada such a great country.”
How much diversity is too much for Bernier is far from clear.
In a subsequent tweet on the same general theme at mid-week, he drew a parallel between the removal a statue of former prime minister John A. Macdonald from the steps of Victoria city hall and the installation in a Winnipeg park of one in honour of the founder of Pakistan.
Except for the fact that they both feature statues, the two events are completely unrelated. It was Macdonald’s Indigenous policies and, more specifically, his residential schools legacy that prompted calls for the removal of his statue. It may have escaped Bernier’s attention that the less diverse Canada of the recent past also happened to be a less enlightened one.
Some of the more vehement and articulate rebuttals of Bernier’s Twitter rant came from his own caucus colleagues, in particular immigration and foreign affairs critics Michelle Rempel and Erin O’Toole, but also Tony Clement, one of his more prominent caucus supporters both during and since the leadership campaign.
By all indications, Bernier is dragging the Conservative party into a debate on terms that neither Scheer nor his caucus team has the inclination to pursue.
Last spring, Bernier was removed from the Conservative shadow cabinet for continuing to promote his view that Canada’s supply management system in the dairy and poultry industries should be eliminated, in contradiction with Scheer’s policy of defending its maintenance.
But at least back then, supply management was definitively on the radar — where it will remain at least for as long as there is no resolution of the larger NAFTA issue between Canada and the U.S.
This latest eruption is different both in substance and in timing.
There is little or no immediate context to justify it except Bernier’s apparent need to showcase himself as a bull in a china shop.
Coming as it does on the eve of a convention designed to build on the Conservative party’s recent and hard-earned momentum in the polls, many will rightly see it as a dare to the rookie leader to discipline a former leadership rival whose popularity — in some quarters — is superior to his own.
One way or another, this is a lose-lose episode for the party Bernier so obviously still believes he should be leading.
Chantal Hébert is a columnist based in Ottawa covering politics. Follow her on Twitter: @ChantalHbert