OTTAWA (Reuters) - Maxime "Mad Max" Bernier, one of the most right-wing figures ever seen in Canadian federal politics, has a score to settle and nothing to lose - a potent mix that could shape the outcome of next month's national election.
The 56-year-old Bernier - a former minister of foreign affairs and industry - founded the populist People's Party of Canada (PPC) a year ago after narrowly losing his bid for the leadership of the main opposition Conservative Party to Andrew Scheer.
In his parting speech, Bernier, who is from the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, repeatedly attacked Scheer and deemed the party "too intellectually and morally corrupt to be reformed."
Bernier has since stolen a page from U.S. President Donald Trump's playbook - and that of European populists like Italy's Matteo Salvini - proposing measures unheard of in contemporary Canadian mainstream politics.
They include pledging to build a fence at the U.S. border to crack down on asylum seekers, slashing immigration levels, rejecting the idea that climate change is caused by humans and defunding the public broadcaster.
He even found time to attack 16-year-old Swedish climate advocate Greta Thunberg, calling her mentally unstable.
Bernier's contempt for political correctness and his rejection of multiculturalism as a "cult of diversity" could pose a real problem for the more moderate Scheer, who is in a tight race with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of the Oct. 21 national vote.
The PPC is polling between 1% and 3% nationally and Bernier risks losing even his own seat south of Quebec City. But if he grows more popular, it could split the right-of-centre vote and hand parties on the left, including the Liberals, seats they would not have otherwise won.
"Eight to 10 Conservative seats are in play ... because the People's Party is siphoning off 5% or 6% of the support" in those districts, pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research said. "If Bernier climbs to 5% or 10%, it's a Liberal win."
In speeches across the country and on social media, Bernier targets Scheer as a "fake Conservative" whose policies are virtually the same as Trudeau's.
Scheer "has no clear principles or program," Bernier said in his first party conference, held in a casino hotel in Quebec last month. "He's pandering to every interest group in the country."
Bernier was initially shut out of two official leaders' debates set for next month, but organizers later said he could take part. That will put him on the national stage alongside Scheer and Trudeau.
"I look forward to holding him to account publicly for his intolerant views," Trudeau said.
Scheer has largely shrugged off Bernier's criticism, saying he is focused on defeating Trudeau. A Conservative official said the PPC "is a party that's just going nowhere."
Rick Anderson, a former Conservative campaign director, said the debates would allow Bernier to cast himself as the only leader in touch with what many voters are really thinking, a man prepared to say things no one else dares say on topics such as immigration and Canadian identity.
"The debates ... will probably more than double Bernier's support," he said. "The Liberals know that and they're counting on that being at Scheer's expense."
More than 20% of Canada's population was born in another country, the highest proportion among the Group of Seven industrialized nations, and the country's multiculturalism has long been touted as a source of pride.
So there is also a risk that Bernier will make Scheer look like "the voice of reason" among moderates who have been drifting back and forth between Liberals and Conservatives, Frank Graves of EKOS Research polling company said.
Bernier's famous "Mad Max" nickname - after the Mel Gibson movie character - dates back to his losing effort for the Conservative leadership. In a Facebook post with his head photoshopped onto Gibson's body, Bernier said he was "mad about government waste" and "politics as usual," among other things.
While still a Conservative, Bernier increasingly turned into a square peg who stood out. Now he is embracing his inner maverick and the kind of identity politics in fashion south of the border.
When asked by Reuters at the PPC conference if he considered himself Canada's Trump, he said no.
"I'm myself. I'm authentic," he said.
(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Additional reporting by Kelsey Johnson; Editing by Peter Cooney)
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