Maxime Bernier says race for Portage-Lisgar byelection is between him and ‘fake’ conservative

Maxime Bernier says he will run in what he predicts will be a “two-horse race” for a federal seat in a coming byelection in rural Manitoba.

The People’s Party of Canada (PPC) leader says the vote in Portage-Lisgar will be a choice between him or a man he called a fake conservative.

The byelection has not yet been called, but in the absence of a general federal election, it must be announced by Aug. 27, and held by Oct. 17 at the latest.

Earlier this month, Conservative Party of Canada members nominated Branden Leslie, a former Conservative campaign manager in the riding, as their candidate.

The seat was previously held by Candice Bergen, who was the Conservative Party’s interim leader last year and who stepped down as a member of Parliament in February.

A man in a grey suit poses for a photo with a man in a grey button-down shirt.
Maxime Bernier poses with a supporter in Portage la Prairie, Man., on Friday. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Bernier held several roles in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, including leading the industry and foreign affairs ministries.

He quit the Conservative Party in 2018 after losing its 2017 leadership contest to Andrew Scheer.

After forming his own party, Bernier ran in his former seat of Beauce, Que., in the 2019 and 2021 elections, losing both times to a Conservative candidate.

He told supporters in Portage la Prairie, Man., on Friday that the area reminds him of his home riding, and he urged them to make history by electing the first member of Parliament from his party — to “open the floodgates.”

“This byelection is the starting of a major turning point in Canadian politics,” he said.

In the last federal election, the People’s Party of Canada candidate in Portage-Lisgar got 22 per cent of the vote.

A man with dark brown hair and blue eyes wears a blue suit and stands in front of a Canadian flag.
Earlier this month, Branden Leslie was nominated by Conservative Party of Canada members in Portage-Lisgar to run in the upcoming byelection. (Branden Leslie for Portage-Lisgar/Facebook)

Bernier compared his party to the former Reform Party, saying he has learned from that party’s mistakes and has no plans to merge with the Conservatives.

He urged supporters to join a political revolution and took shots at the Liberals, the NDP and especially the Conservatives, whom he accused of only caring about voters during elections.

He also said Canada has changed dramatically for the worse in recent years, railing against what he called “moral and cultural degeneracy” and “the woke cult.”

He claimed that society has been overtaken by evil and “those who reject it are silenced and smeared as intolerant, racist and transphobic.”

Bernier railed against lockdowns and other restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and in 2021 he was arrested in Manitoba for breaking public-health orders.

He told the crowd Friday he will be fighting his arrest in court next Tuesday.

Branden Leslie, who has been nominated as the Conservative candidate for the riding, fired back at his opponent in a statement to CBC News.

“Maxime Bernier is an opportunist from Quebec who will say or do anything he thinks people want to hear,” he wrote.

“What Conservatives will do is axe the carbon tax, end the runaway deficits that are driving up the cost of living, and put people back in control of their lives.”

Curtis Brown, a principal with Probe Research, said the PPC has a big challenge ahead of itself to overcome the 30-percentage point lead the Conservatives enjoyed in 2021.

He said the anger over COVID mandates has subsided, and the Conservatives under Pierre Poilievre have made inroads with voters who hold more libertarian views. Leslie, the party’s Portage-Lisgar candidate, has also criticized pandemic restrictions and vaccine mandates.

“The Conservatives have tried to bring some of those folks back a little bit, speak to them a little more,” Brown said.

After Bernier’s speech, some of his supporters say the Conservatives cannot win them back.

Rick Wall said the Tories didn’t vocally oppose the mandates as they were happening.

“Even though they’re coming out now and saying things should have been done differently … Max did that from day one and he never deviated from his message.”

Wall said many people in the riding know who Bernier is. He expects the PPC leader’s personal popularity will garner the party some votes.