SAINT-GEORGES, QUE. — The signs are everywhere. “Nous embauchons!” (We are hiring), read the billboards dotting the two-laned highway that runs along the Chaudière River through the largest municipalities in Maxime Bernier’s riding of Beauce.
Even the gas station in Sainte-Marie, Que., where I stop to fill up the rental car has plastered on every one of its pumps, typed notices on 8x11 paper, advertising that it too is looking to hire.
This region faces a severe labour shortage — the worst in the country, with an unemployment rate of only 2.3 per cent this August. But hearing its MP speak, you’d be hard pressed to find an acknowledgement of what local leaders call a “crisis.”
Bernier, a dashing six-foot-two, 56-year-old, has represented this riding — which begins about a 30-minute drive south of Quebec City and extends to the U.S. border with Maine — since 2006. His father, Gilles, held the riding in the 1980s when Brian Mulroney was prime minister.
Maxime Bernier won handily, with 67 per cent of votes cast, and has coasted to re-election three times since. This time, however, the candidate faces his toughest fight.
“Maybe I won’t win with 59 per cent of the vote like I did last time, but, you know, I’ll be there, I will do my best to be there in Parliament after the 21st of October,” he tells me at his August campaign kick-off in Sainte-Marie, a small town in his riding.
A year ago, Bernier decided he had his fill of the Conservative Party of Canada. He declared it morally and intellectually bankrupt — just 15 months after losing the party’s leadership vote — and set out on his own, forming People’s Party of Canada.
Now, Bernier says, his No. 1 challenge is getting that party known.
“People in Beauce know me, but they don’t know the name of our party,” he says in front of PPC backdrops and signs with his face plastered all over them.
“For me, I’m telling them, you know, I’m the same guy. I’m in politics for the same reason, fighting for more freedom and less government, and that is part of the Beauceron identity. So I’m pretty confident that it will go well, but I will need to work. I have more competition than I had in the past, and I admit that, but I like competition. I like free markets, I like competition. Let’s bring it.”
After a year of hard work, signing up 40,000 members and, finding candidates for nearly all 338 ridings, Bernier garnered enough public support for his upstart party to be included in this week’s official debates.
That support though has been obtained through incendiary headlines: tweets opposing “extreme multiculturalism,” fear-mongering about the United Nations’ Global Migration Compact, posing for pictures — unknowingly, he says — with white nationalists.
Last week, Bernier lost a candidate in Nova Scotia who said he couldn’t remain in a party that he felt had become “very dangerous” and a “kind of vehicle for racism.”
Bernier insists he isn’t a racist. But he, and those he associates with, keep using exclusionary language.
At his party’s first national convention this August, Bernier shared the stage with a former Conservative candidate, Benjamin Dichter, who accused the Conservatives and Liberals of being infiltrated with “Islamist extremists.” At his party’s official campaign launch in Sainte-Marie, Que., Julie Lavallée, the Montarville candidate who addressed the audience before him, spoke of her like for travel and living like a local when she is abroad. “But when I return to Canada, I want to live like a Canadian!,” she said, as the crowd roared in thunderous applause.
Watch: Maxime Bernier faces hecklers in immigration speech
Bernier’s apparent anti-immigration positions seem at odds with the huge labour shortage in the area and what local leaders say they actually need to keep their region thriving.
His rhetoric “certainly rings false in certain ears,” says Hélène Latulippe, the director general of the Beauce economic council.
For nearly a decade, businesses here have been grappling with a labour shortage so acute it has led to provincial and international recruiting efforts. Latulippe hopes candidates in this election will pledge to make it easier for migrants to come and work in Beauce.
International recruiting can be slow, and employers are often limited in the number of foreign workers they can bring in, she says. Her group is urging politicians to raise the quotas in the temporary foreign worker program by 20 per cent to help fill local needs.
The program, designed to address temporary shortages, is used by companies here, she says, to recruit permanent workers, people who, they hope, will bring their families and make Saint-Georges their home.
Mélanie Grenier works to welcome new immigrants at the Carrefour jeunesse emploi in Beauce Sud, an employment centre located in Saint-Georges, the riding’s largest town.
“What we see is the distress families of temporary workers experience,” she says. Low-skilled workers are not allowed to bring their loved ones with them, and those with specialized skills, if they come from a country that requires a visa, often find themselves in a Catch-22 scenario where immigration agents won’t let their families in for fear they’ll never return home.
“But our goal is to take those temporary workers and make them permanent,” she says. Workers are routinely denied visas and permits. “It’s like a lottery, it depends on the agent…. We’d really like it that if we accept a worker, we accept their family.”
Much effort is spent welcoming and integrating newcomers. Companies pair them up with volunteers so they feel more at home, welcomed and well integrated. Activities are organized. Grenier even runs a workshop on “How to date like a Quebecer,” so new immigrants aren’t shot down on their first approach.
Tony Turcotte, the business director at EBI electric, an electrotechnical company that’s been in the Beauce area for more than 70 years, says his company has doubled its workforce to about 130 in 12 years and he’s constantly on the lookout for people to fill about 10 positions.
“We can try to poach from our neighbours, but when there is not much more there, well, we need to go a bit farther to recruit,” he says.
EBI has hired workers from France, but Turcotte says the process is long, expensive and risky. He has already lost one of the three employees he spent nine months recruiting after that person decided to return home.
It’s not just the manufacturers concentrated in Saint-Georges that are experiencing a labour shortage.
Frédéric Marcoux runs a dairy farm in Sainte-Marguerite, in the northern part of the riding. He says farmers in his area are also struggling to find workers — even those with no qualifications.
Standing outside his barn, he tells me a colleague offered $25 an hour —no high school diploma necessary — and not a single person applied. So his buddy enquired about the two robots Marcoux had installed. At a cost of $125,000 each, the machines milk Marcoux’s 90 plus cows, ensuring he can run the farm his grandfather started without much extra help.
“We have one candidate who wants to put the brakes on immigration and another candidate, who — I actually don’t know what Richard Lehoux’s position is, but I know he knows that our companies are struggling with labour shortages,” Marcoux says. “He’s much more grounded in what the local issues here are than Maxime Bernier.”
Marcoux tells me isn’t actively involved in the race against Bernier, but, like many other dairy farmers here, he has donated to Lehoux’s campaign. He says Bernier’s stance on immigration has an audience in the riding.
“Let’s not hide it,” he says, campaigning on immigration is “sure to please.”
There aren’t a lot of immigrants in Beauce.
There are a few Muslims, Marcoux notes, but there are no mosques in Sainte-Marie or in Saint-Georges, the riding’s largest towns. People in the area, he says, are afraid of what they don’t know.
“What is different always makes you a bit more scared,” he says. “If you’ve never rubbed shoulders with these people, well, it’s understandable there may be some concerns.”
One of the largest employers in this area is Olymel, a processed meat company that runs a pork slaughterhouse. Marcoux doesn’t expect a huge influx of people from the Maghreb to be clamouring to work there, but if building a mosque would get more workers into the area, he offers, why not build one?
“As long as I’m not being harassed to convert, I don’t have any problems. Let them do what they want to do. If it brings in more workers, it doesn’t bother me much.”
Marcoux is not surprised lots of people remain pro-Maxime Bernier.
The people in this area — les Beaucerons, as they are called — aren’t bad people, he goes on.
“They’re people who work hard. Many of them work in manufacturing. They work very hard on the shop floor. They pay their income tax. And it’s obvious that when they’re promised the sky — lower taxes, more money in your pockets — well, it’s understandable that these voters, they’ll appreciate that dialogue,” he says.
Bernier knows his voters, Marcoux adds.
“In Beauce, people are entrepreneurs,” he explains. When they tire of working in a shop for someone else, they start their own businesses. They don’t depend on government jobs. And here, folks are far enough from major urban centers that they often don’t see how they benefit from many of the public services their taxes go to pay.
“We don’t depend on the state. … We don’t see concretely what we are paying for. … We don’t socialize with people who work for the public service,” he says. “So it’s understandable that we are not sensitized to that reality … so being a libertarian, well, it can be very seductive here. It’s a region … that works hard, and that wants something for its money. I harbour no ill feelings for the Beaucerons who’ve voted for Maxime Bernier. It’s understandable.”
But, before I leave, he adds: “Richard Lehoux still has very good chances of leapfrogging ahead and dislodging Maxime Bernier.”
Richard Lehoux was just a few months into his retirement when the Conservative party came calling.
He says he felt like a little something was missing and, when presented with the possibility of being the region’s new blood in Ottawa, he decided to jump back into elected politics.
Lehoux is a short, friendly man with a positive demeanor. He meets me in a blueberry farm with his spouse, one of his 10 grandchildren, and a local organizer. La Bleuetière Marland is also, on this day, the site of a local food festival, Les rendez-vous gourmands de la Nouvelle-Beauce. I watch him glad-hand the crowd, introducing himself to many young families walking the grounds eating ice cream cones and buying maple syrup products. They seem receptive to his message, but most are unaware of who he is.
Lehoux was a dairy farmer for 35 years who also bred Holsteins. Some of his cows are found, he says proudly, in more than 30 countries. His sons have run the family farm for a while.
And to most folks in the area around Sainte-Marie, Lehoux is better known as a longtime politician: the mayor of Saint-Elzéar for 19 years, the reeve of the regional county municipality of Nouvelle-Beauce for 17, and, most recently, the president of the Fédération Québécoise des municipalités.
A card-carrying conservative for most of his life — since the early 1980s but not while he was at the federation — Lehoux said he volunteered to help the Conservative party after Bernier quit.
“But they insisted that I become the candidate,” he says.
His wife gave him the necessary nod and, since last October, he’s been pounding the pavement in the riding.
“At 62, I’m not completely done. I still have beautiful things to accomplish,” he says.
Lehoux’s major concern is the labour shortage. “Yes, it’s present in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada, but here, in Beauce, it is really screaming and important.”
The federal government, he says, should play a larger role in immigration. It’s unfair that the region’s businesses can’t bring in more workers because they’ve already reached their quotas, he says. “We’d like to have more immigrants, because we have very good results when it comes to integration.”
But, he adds, immigrants should be better targeted. “The immigrants we need are not always those who arrive.”
Lehoux was pleased to see his leader, Andrew Scheer, support seniors’ re-entering the workforce without being financially penalized, he says. The Tories have proposed boosting the Age Credit for low- and middle-income seniors, a saving of up to $150.
Another issue Lehoux wants to talk about is dependable cellular service and high-speed internet.
It doesn’t make sense, he says, that it takes 20 years for technology to make its way outside urban centres. People everywhere should have the same level of service.
“For the regions to remain dynamic, we need the tools,” he says. There are so many people in business parks that don’t even have reliable internet, he adds.
Lehoux, who lives on county road, says he often needs to step out of his house to get cellular signal. “Is this normal in 2019? I don’t think so.”
Unsurprisingly, supply management is another topic he’s passionate about.
Bernier has made ending supply management — the system of quotas, import controls and pricing mechanisms in the dairy, chicken and egg industry — his rallying cry. He argues that it drives up costs for consumers. The farmers argue it ensures that family farms remain sustainable and rural areas thriving.
Lehoux has the backing of the region’s many dairy producers. During the Conservative leadership race in 2017, those farmers mobilized, they signed up hundreds of members and beat Bernier in his own riding, 51 to 49 per cent. That’s the same split as in the national contest, where Bernier narrowly lost to Scheer.
Lehoux says that countries that have liberalized trade in their dairy industry have seen conditions worsen for their farmers. “Whether it’s New Zealand, Australia, France, Belgium, Switzerland, ... it’s far from a pretty sight for farmers,”
Lehoux talks up Scheer’s commitment to ensure no more market access is traded in international agreements, as happened in the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), and the new NAFTA, known officially as USMCA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Watch: What Scheer is promising Quebec on immigration
“Agriculture is an important economic motor, but we often underestimate it,” he says.
Lehoux says he trusts the riding’s voters will see the difference between what he’s pitching and what Bernier is offering.
The candidates have very different visions, he says. “Beaucerons are people who are, yes, conservative. They are people who have always been a bit more to the right, but there is a difference between the right and the extreme right.”
Bernier’s call to get rid of all government subsidies to businesses, he says, makes no sense. Most countries offer some sort of government assistance to key sectors, and Canada shouldn’t shoot itself in the foot, he adds.
Lehoux keeps talking up his family values — the importance of his wife, his three children and their spouses, his 10 grandchildren — and of being close to people in the riding.
“You have to be on the ground, close to them,” he says, a few times. “What’s important is to be close to people too, to be on the ground, present on the ground, present in the riding. That’s always something that has been very important to me as a municipal official, to be close to people.”
Beaucerons, he says, are people who like to help each other.
“When you see catastrophes, whether it’s flooding or big fires in the area, people are always ready to go out and help people who are stuck in precarious positions.”
Lehoux says Scheer would benefit from being better known. He’s pleased the leader has spent a lot of time in Quebec over the past six months, and he wants to stress that he has the Conservative leader’s ear.
Scheer’s social conservative stances aren’t an issue at the door, he says. No one is talking to him about gay marriage or abortion. Lehoux himself is a bit cagey on the question.
“I’d probably be more pro-choice, but, if it comes to it, I would consult the population here in the region,” he says when asked about his own position on abortion.
As we sit down for a drink after the interview, a man comes up to Lehoux, who is still sporting his Conservative baseball cap. He hands him a cheque for a $100. Lehoux beams. He tells me he doesn’t even know who this man is.
I ask if he thinks he’s going to win. He laughs. His wife laughs.
“If I decided to throw myself into politics, yes, it’s because I want to win. I am not used to being a loser.”
Maybe Lehoux was too polite to tell me what he actually thinks of Maxime Bernier, but the dairy farmers are blunt. They shed light on some of the comments the Tory candidate seemed to want to make.
Bernier didn’t show up to the riding until several days after a spring flood this April, they tell me. The region was devastated. More than 250 homes were inundated. Many buildings in Sainte-Marie’s downtown were demolished. Bernier was in British Columbia. He posted on Facebook his support, telling residents to “have courage.”
I guess that’s what Lehoux meant when he said people here like to help each other.
The farmers are also skeptical of Bernier’s ties to the region.
“He lives in Montreal, his children went to school in Montreal. He says he’s a Beauceron, he ran across the riding from one side to the other, but that’s it. That’s his biggest accomplishment in the riding,” Marcoux says.
In 2013, Bernier, then the minister for small business and tourism, ran 106 kilometres through Beauce, inviting locals to join him. According to Radio-Canada, he raised $153,000 for a local food bank, the Fondation Moisson-Beauce.
Bertrand Boutin, a former dairy farmer, breeder and maple syrup producer in Saint-Jean-de-la-Lande, Que., whose sons and grandsons now run the family businesses, also doesn’t believe Bernier has close ties to his constituents.
“You must understand that Mr. Bernier is a man from Montreal. He is not a guy from Beauce,” he tells me after we tour his farm.
“He was elected in Beauce because of his father’s fame. His father was a politician who listened to people, who was with his people. Mr. Bernier is a Montrealer who does not care at all about Beauce.”
Boutin believes Bernier doesn’t deserve to be the area’s elected representative. “He called us ‘economic illiterates,’” he says. “He called us the ‘mafia,’” Boutin adds, referring to the co-op of maple syrup producers in Quebec. “We’ve never seen that, that a candidate could treat people like that. I think you have to have more respect for the people who elect you.”
Boutin, who organized against Bernier during the Tory leadership race and is now backing Lehoux, is full of criticism abouthis MP’s behaviour after losing the Conservative leadership vote.
“He doesn’t accept democracy. He’s a spoiled baby who always wants to win,” he says. “That’s why he started his own party. He even named himself the leader. I mean, that’s quite something. We haven’t seen that often.”
Boutin says that Bernier has no respect for agriculture producers, that he cares more about multinationals, and that “he’s anti-union.”
“If he loved Beauce so much, why did he, on June 27, go get married in Florida? He could have done the ceremony here, if Beauce is so nice.
“It makes us laugh a bit.”
Maxime Bernier is itching for a fight.
He calls this the most “exalting” competition he’s ever faced. “I’ve always loved competition, now I have a competitor [Lehoux] who is actually there to defend his own financial interests — to defend supply management — and I am going to defend, as usual, the interests of all the Beaucerons,” he tells me.
Acknowledging that the top concern in his region is immigration, he says he is pitching what his constituents want but that he just needs to explain it to them.
“They need to know that out of the 310,000 new Canadians that are coming to this country this year, only 26 per cent of them are economic immigrants. These people come with their immediate families, so the numbers appear to be 55 per cent, but it is only 26 per cent who are real workers who come here because of their expertise,” he says.
Bernier wants to boost that ratio to 55 per cent of actual workers while at the same time dropping the number of immigrants a year to 150,000. “It should satisfy their needs of Beauce businesses,” he says.
People, he suggests, want what he is selling, they just don’t know it yet.
“People want fewer refugees. I am offering fewer refugees.” It doesn’t make sense for Canada to accept more refugees than the United States, which is 10 times larger in size, he says.
He acknowledges local businesses want more temporary foreign workers. But says that will be something discussed with the provincial government.
“I agree that we need to have real temporary foreign workers, who are working in the fields, picking fruits,” he says. “It’s up to me to explain to them that we have the best policy to respond to their needs.”
Bernier plays down the possibility that the riding’s constituents will vote for someone who could be on the government benches and deliver more for the riding.
“People are proud … and a party leader, who could become prime minister — maybe not in this election but certainly the next — I think Beaucerons are proud. And a guy who hasn’t changed, who is authentic, who defends the same values since 2006. I think that’s important. I’m not a weathervane like Mr. Lehoux.”
I had to Google the French term he used, “girouette.” I hadn’t heard that insult before. A turncoat? Lehoux ran as provincial Liberal in Beauce–Nord in 2008. He came in second to the ADQ. At the time, former federal Progressive Conservative leader Jean Charest was leading the provincial Liberals.
Bernier says Lehoux can be excused because the Conservative and the Liberals are, he said, the same thing anyway these days.
He lashes out at the Conservatives for promising to balance the budget in five years.
“They are going to spend, spend, spend, and at the same time they are going to be able to lower income taxes? No.
“With us, Canadians will be able to save $40 billion in taxes,” he says. “How are we going to do that? We are honest with people, $5 billion to eliminate corporate welfare, $4 billion by eliminating some foreign aid, privatization of Canada Post, abolish the CRTC, we have our reforms,” he says, all energized.
The mayor of Saint-Georges, Claude Morin, has told me he thinks one knock against Bernier may be that voters in the area seek to support a candidate who could actually be part of the governing party.
“From the get-go, they have more chances. If you’re sitting on the bench with the winning team, you have more chances of winning the cup.”
Morin, who used to be an ADQ MNA in Quebec City and who also ran as a federal Liberal in 2011, said sitting on the opposition benches there are few chances of getting help for the riding. He thinks Bernier, even when he was in cabinet, didn’t bring home much bacon. All the neighbouring towns received support for their airports, he tells me as we walk through a city park. Saint-Georges got nothing.
“Everybody screams about the deficits, but everyone wants money,” he says.
Bernier laughs when I tell him people have noted that he might have grown up in Beauce but he lives in Montreal, that his daughters were raised in Montreal, that he got married in Florida. “Are you serious?” he asks. “Yes.”
“Yes, I worked in Montreal. I worked there for 20 years. …... I came back to Beauce in 2006 to represent the Beaucerons. … Yes, Catherine, my wife, lives in Montreal,” he says. His daughter Meghan is in a private school in Toronto. His other daughter, Charlotte, goes to the University of Montreal. “Do we have something against that? They are perfectly bilingual.”
His wife, he says, wanted to get married by the beach. It was a dream of hers. And what he does in his private life, he suggests, is his business.
He says criticism that he wasn’t around during the floods, that he came to pose for pictures but didn’t do any heavy lifting, is “propaganda from his opponents.”
People are throwing mud, he says, because they are afraid to debate him on his ideas.
The farmers are going to come after him, he acknowledges.. But this time, it won’t be a thousand voters casting a ballot at a Conservative function, it will be 90,000 residents.
“[The Conservatives] are going to spend the maximum they can in Beauce to beat me,” he says. “They will do everything they can to beat me, because they don’t want the [People’s] party to have a presence in Parliament. But that’s part of the game.
“I’m ready. I have no problem with that.”
Gilles Bernier says he’s proud of his son and his “audacious project.”
“It takes a lot, a lot of courage to create a political party,” he says, and so far, he adds, “it’s been a big success.”
A lot of people don’t care about politics, he says, looking around the crowd of about 600 that have assembled in the local arena in Sainte-Marie for Bernier’s launch. “So to assemble this many people … it makes people think twice.”
“Maxime is very popular in the region, and I think that’s going to continue,” he tells me. What about the Tory machine, I ask. “He has the Bernier machine,” his dad responds.
Victory on Oct. 21 in Beauce may come down to the ground game.
Saint-Georges, the largest town in the riding, with 31,000 residents, may decide the contest. Lehoux’s strength is in the northern part of the riding, near Sainte-Marie, second largest town with a population of about 13,000. That’s close to where he was the mayor and near his farm. But Bernier grew up in Saint-Georges. His father still lives there, just a few doors down from the mayor.
Saint-Georges is less focused on agriculture and more industrial. “It’s a part of the riding that is more reflective of the image that Mr. Bernier represents,” Marcoux says. “More enterprising, individualistic, more entrepreneurial, more ‘let me manage my own affairs.’”
Turcotte says he thinks people here are going to vote for the candidate rather than the party.
“I think people vote for Maxime,” he says. Bernier is quite present in town, he adds.
Mr. Morin, the mayor, notes that the Berniers, both senior and junior, still do the rounds.
“Maxime, we’ve always said, is a kind of rock star, but he didn’t deliver for his people … even when he was with the Harper government,” he says.
Still, Morin says Bernier deserves some credit.
“He’s got guts. He’s not afraid. To take position against the farmers, you have to give him credit for the courage he has.”
The mood on the ground is less enthusiastic for Bernier this time, Morin says, but it’s not clear people want change.
On the street of Saint-Georges, one woman out for a jog, who doesn’t want her name used, thinks Bernier’s time is up.
“I am not sure he’s going to get in. I don’t know if you call those blunders — but he’s made a few moves that have made us look at him in another way,” she says. “I know I’m not going to vote for him. My partner neither. No, not at all. Change would be good.”
Boutin, the farmer, says he certainly hopes Bernier will be defeated.
But Richard Déry isn’t sure.
The retired maritime captain, who’s enjoying the late summer evening reading a book by the river, says Bernier is well loved. And his anti-immigrant sales pitch has an audience.
“I don’t know for Saint-Georges, but in the countryside people are a bit racist.”
Bernier and his father are very visible, he says. They go to all the funerals, send notes on birthdays.
“Whether it was the errors he made in the past, Julie Couillard [his former girlfriend with biker ties with whom he left secret documents], bill 101 [Bernier said Quebec didn’t need its popular language law], or the keys of his car [Bernier was seen on camera showing a TV reporter where he hides his car keys when he goes out for jog], people admit he is a bit Gaston Lagaffe. [Gaston Lagaffe is a French-language comic strip character, created by a Belgian, and known to be lazy and accident prone.]
“He is loved without conditions,” Déry says, laughing. “I think he’s going to be re-elected.”
This story is a part of the federal election edition of HuffPost Reports. This summer, the HuffPost Canada politics team spread out across the country to take a look at some of the ridings that could make a real difference in the outcome of this year’s campaign. Ridings To Watch is an ongoing series that looks at the people and politicians in those communities and the role they might play as Canadians head to the polls.