Local MP promised to protect set prices and quotas before election, then changed his tune for leadership bid
Maxime Bernier's quest to become leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has inspired more than a thousand farmers in his Quebec riding of Beauce to get out the vote — against him, that is.
Bernier is considered the front-runner in the party's leadership race, a year-long contest whose winner is to be announced later today at a convention in Toronto.
Yet the prospect of Bernier winning has Kristina Johnston and other Beauce farmers determined to undermine his leadership bid.
"I think the concept is terrifying," Johnston, a 26-year-old mother of two, told CBC this week.
She wants her children to have a future in farming and worries that may not be possible if Canada's supply-management system is phased out, as Bernier is promising to do.
Kristina Johnston, 26, wants her children to have a future in farming and says that might not be possible if supply management is phased out. (Catou MacKinnon/CBC)
The Beauce region has the highest number of farmers in Canada working under the system, which sets prices and quotas for eggs, milk and poultry.
Advocates of supply management say it provides a fair return on the costs of production, but opponents including Bernier say it undermines free-market competition and keeps prices artificially high.
In response to Bernier's position, Beauce farmers have mailed in about 1,400 ballots choosing his main rival, Andrew Scheer, as their number one candidate for the Conservative leadership.
Bernier's camp said they have about 1,500 members in the Beauce, but it doesn't know how many voted.
As the former minister for small business and tourism, and as the Conservative MP for Beauce since 2006, Bernier had repeatedly backed his party's longstanding support for the supply-managed farm sector.
On the campaign trail for the Conservative leadership, however, Bernier has called the system a "government cartel" that is "inefficient and fundamentally unfair to Canadian families."
Johnston contrasts that position with a speech Bernier made at a local protest in July 2015, just months prior to the last federal election.
Maxime Bernier told Radio-Canada he can't put the concerns of 19,000 farmers before those of millions of consumers. (Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada)
At the time, Bernier told those gathered, "I am glad you're here to support this government's position to preserve the supply-management system in Canada."
He was re-elected in the October 2015 federal election with 60 per cent of the vote.
"Just the fact he lied about that, to his people here in the Beauce. So what else is he lying about? That's what scares me," Johnston said.
Bernier told CBC last year that he only toed the Conservative line on supply management in the name of cabinet solidarity and because it was a position the party had reached democratically.
Now free to promote his own policies and ideas, the self-declared free-market libertarian said he's always had misgivings about supply management and can't support it on principle.
"In order to protect 10 per cent of farmers, we are forcing all Canadian families, especially those with children and low-income families, to pay hundreds of dollars more every year for dairy, eggs and poultry products," he said.
Johnston said she bought a Conservative Party membership and cast a ballot to protect her children's future and a way of life that depends on getting fair value for farm eggs, milk and poultry.
She said she used to think those products were expensive until she married into a farming family in Saint-Victor.
"Now I really understand what producers go through, how hard we work — from morning until night, and that's seven days a week," she said.
"We don't get Christmas off, we don't Easter off, we don't get Thanksgiving. It's every single day."
Bernier told Radio-Canada this week that he expects the farmers' campaign to have a "major impact" on today's results.
The party had sold 5,000 memberships in Quebec before the race, he said, and his team has sold 5,000 more.
But Quebec farmers, he was told, could hold another 8,000 party memberships.
"Of course, farmers in the supply-management system don't vote Maxime Bernier," the candidate said.
Bernier said when he ran to replace Harper he wanted to be credible when he defended his free-market policies. He also didn't want to look like he was wooing votes from particular groups.
"Across the country, they're only 19,000 producers under supply management, compared to 35 million Canadian consumers."
When he launched his leadership campaign last May in the Beauce, Bernier highlighted the local values that he said lie at the heart of his political career.
"Beauce is a land of builders and entrepreneurs, of independence and integrity, of entrepreneurial spirit," he said.
That appeal to Beauce values, however, has been overshadowed by his position on supply management.
Germain Lehoux, a fifth-generation farmer in the Beauce, says he's furious, and he feels betrayed by Bernier.
"We don't receive any money from the government, so why is he fighting us?" he asked.
Lehoux said taking on farmers is a risky move and could draw in their allies. He said his suppliers, the companies he hires to help with spreading manure, the truckers, the local store owners will support the farmers who give them work.
"To become prime minister, he has to win his election here in the Beauce first," Lehoux said with a laugh.
Yet not all Beaucerons will be casting their votes in solidarity with the farmers.
Gaston Cloutier, a former lawyer and veteran broadcaster in the region, said many will vote for Bernier because he's pro-business.
"You know the dairy producers is a syndicate. But in Beauce, we don't really like a syndicate, what we really like is business," he told CBC.
He also said many are proud their local MP could end up a national party leader.
If Bernier wins, he would be the second Beauce native to lead a national political party after Fabien Roy, who led the Social Credit Party of Canada in the 1970s.