I did not plan to write about polarization—I’ve filled my quota on that topic—until Maxime Bernier held a rally near my home. Bernier leads the People’s Party of Canada (PPC) and may be the most prominent populist politician in the country. I couldn’t resist the chance to cross the political divide.
I attended the June 10 rally in Winkler, Manitoba, and interviewed Bernier at his hotel two days later.
Bernier is a former Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) cabinet minister who came within a percentage point of becoming the party’s leader in 2017. Disillusioned with the CPC, he founded the PPC.
Now Bernier, who does not have a seat in parliament, is running in a federal by-election in the Portage-Lisgar riding where I live. In the 2021 election, the PPC received a higher percentage of the vote here (22 percent) than in any other riding.
The by-election is on June 19, shortly after this issue goes to print. The race is between the Conservatives and the even-more-conservatives.
I love the irony of a big-city francophone from Quebec winning the hearts of a surprising number of conservative Mennonites. His appeal is simple: family values. He speaks about a “cult of death,” referring to abortion and medical assistance in dying. If elected he would introduce a private member’s bill restricting late-term abortion, something he says no one wants to argue against openly.
He notes that while his CPC opponent, Branden Leslie, is also pro-life, Leslie will not be able to act on that conviction in Ottawa since his party has vowed not to reopen the abortion debate.
Bernier calls the CPC “fake conservatives” who follow polls rather than standing on conviction.
The note he hits most forcefully is his opposition to “toxic trans ideology.” He says people should be free to do what they want with their bodies once they turn 18, but before that, medical intervention related to gender transition should not be allowed. He says school teachings on gender identity confuse youth and contribute to mental health crisis.
I sat on the grass in the Winkler park with a neighbour, two long-time friends who attend a Mennonite Church Canada congregation, and my two sons—12 and 16—listening to Bernier.
I kept thinking how horrified some friends and church folk would be to hear Bernier, and how a fair number in our denomination might quietly think: this guy goes way too far, but he raises worthwhile questions that seldom see daylight in church.
Some people will say Bernier’s language is harmful or dangerous. Indeed, words matter and ideas carry force. Still, we need to weigh the broader danger of seeking to silence and sideline entire groups. That can be counter-productive.
Some people would have felt highly uncomfortable at the rally. Yet the work of crossing divides is important, and discomfort, in appropriate time and measure, is vital spiritually. I went to the rally to experience discomfort, to be challenged.
It wasn’t easy. At many points—including in the hot dog line next to the guy wearing a T-shirt reading, “I’m fully vaccinated with the blood of Jesus”—I had that urge to sneer and dismiss. But to do so would be to dismiss a certain number of my neighbours and friends—people who have helped when trouble hit, coached my kids and occasionally served our family home-grown organic meals in their homes.
The fact that they are decent people does not alter my convictions or dampen my work for causes they might consider wrong. But turning my face toward my neighbour reminds me of the duty of tension.
I can hold to my convictions and even fight against the convictions of others, but I cannot think myself better, or wish others did not exist, or think they do not deserve voice, or excuse myself from the call to love. God made us all and put us here together.
This issue includes a third installment of our What in the World section. We enjoy putting together these quick and quirky tidbits from beyond Menno-land. We hope you like them too.
Finally, an earlier omission. Excerpts of Dispatches by Michael Herr (copyright © 1977 by Michael Herr)—that appeared in Ross W. Muir’s May 5 feature, “Dispatches from the front lines”—are used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
Will Braun welcomes feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Maxime Bernier, former Conservative cabinet minister from Quebec, and now leader of the People’s Party of Canada—ran in the federal by-election in southern Manitoba, basing his campaign in the heart of Mennonite country. This image is from a June 10 rally in Winkler, where the big-city francophone politician has won the hearts of a suprising number of Mennonites. (Photo by Will Braun)