By Rod Nickel and Steve Scherer
WINNIPEG, Manitoba/CANDIAC, Quebec, Sept 14 (Reuters) - Maxime Bernier, a former cabinet minister nicknamed "Mad Max", is channelling anger against mandatory vaccines into surprising support for his populist People's Party of Canada (PPC) in the country's tight election race.
His efforts may end up helping the man he calls a "fascist psychopath": Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Bernier, 58, who quit the main opposition Conservatives in 2018 after losing a leadership race, was previously most famous for leaving classified documents in a former girlfriend's apartment, leading to his resignation as foreign minister in 2008.
Now, amid fatigue over successive coronavirus lockdowns and simmering anger over mandatory masking and vaccine rules, his right-wing party is rising in polls.
The PPC, which Bernier founded, has 9% support nationally, according to an EKOS poll, up from 1.6% in the 2019 election. That is higher than the Green Party though well below Trudeau's Liberals and the Conservatives, who are hovering around 30%.
But PPC support may draw votes away from the Conservatives in close district races, helping the Liberals eke out a win.Poll trackerGraphics
Bernier's rallies have swelled as provinces began requiring proof of COVID-19 inoculation for activities like dining in restaurants or sporting events. Trudeau plans to make vaccinations mandatory for domestic air and train travel, and for government workers.
The PPC supports repealing vaccine mandates and passports, saying the issue is about freedom of choice.
Bernier's support has also grown as his speeches echoed former U.S. President Donald Trump's charged rhetoric.
On Sept. 5, he told a British Columbia rally that "when tyranny becomes law, revolution becomes our duty."
PPC supporters have heckled and shouted profanities at Trudeau's campaign stops, forcing the Liberals to cancel one event last month due to safety concerns. The PPC expelled a local official on Thursday over allegations he threw gravel at Trudeau.
"They're responsible for their own actions," Bernier told Reuters, referring to the protestors that turn up to Trudeau campaign events.
"We need to have an ideological revolution ... I'm not asking anyone to be violent. I'm asking people to stand up and speak out."
Bernier, who is from the predominantly French-speaking province of Quebec, was himself hit with an egg in Saskatchewan on Sept. 2.
At a Trudeau stop in Candiac, Quebec on Sunday, a lone protester with a purple PPC sign tucked under his arm thrust his middle finger in the air as the prime minister spoke.
"Bernier is the only politician advocating for the end of lockdowns, the end of masking, the end of mandatory vaccination," said the man, who said his name was Marcus but declined to give his last name. "That's all I care about."
The PPC holds no parliamentary seats and Bernier himself lost his seat in 2019.
Even a few hundred PPC votes could influence the outcomes of at least half a dozen parliamentary constituency races to the detriment of the Conservatives, said Paul Thomas, professor emeritus of political studies at University of Manitoba, adding that he does not expect the PPC to win any constituencies.
Bernier denies that he is snatching support mainly from the Conservatives. The platforms of Trudeau and Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole are so similar, it makes little difference which one wins, he said.
"They're the same. I call them the Lib-Con party, with one leader, Justin O'Toole."
Bernier said his goal is to win 4% of the popular vote, pointing out that organizers did not allow him to participate in nationally televised leaders debates.
Canada has rarely seen Bernier's combination of inflamed rhetoric and substantial support in a politician. Trump's term in the White House created a "cultural spillover" to Canada that emboldened those who have flocked to the PPC, Thomas 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 listed things he was "mad about" including government waste and "politics as usual."
In June, Manitoba police arrested Bernier for violating public health orders, including refusing to self-isolate upon entering the province.
"He's now taken on a kind of martyr complex and he's almost daring people to arrest him," Thomas said. "That's what he desperately wants."
(Reporting by Rod Nickel in Winnipeg and Steve Scherer in Candiac, Quebec Editing by Alistair Bell)
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