In 2008, Maxime Bernier – as Stephen Harper’s foreign minister – went to Davos, Switzerland, and set foot on the grounds of the World Economic Forum’s annual conference. No one could have imagined then that one day he would be publicly attacked by his former party for being there.
Fifteen years after his trip to Davos, Bernier is running under the banner of his own party – the People’s Party of Canada – in a Manitoba by-election, riding Portage-Lisgar. And the conservative candidate has turned the World Economic Forum into a ballot box problem.
“Unlike Maxime Bernier, I will never attend the World Economic Forum or join groups that don’t put Canada first,” says Branden Leslie. tweeted last week.
Below that text was an image with the main message in block letters: “I PROMISE I WILL NEVER ATTEND WEF.”
The Conservative Party’s pursuit of Bernier on this issue predates the by-election.
“I think Maxime really needs to clarify why he attended the World Economic Forum, why he was involved in it,” conservative leader Pierre Poilièvre told a media outlet. interviewer in March.
Leslie’s tweet caught Bernier’s attention. And when he replied by trying to parse the meaning of the word “attend” (his argument boiled down to the claim that he went to Davos to meet other foreign ministers who happened to be there, not to actually attend the conference) live), the Conservative Party And Poilièvre attacked.
“Maxime Bernier lied to cover up his involvement in the World Economic Forum,” Poilièvre tweeted.
For many Canadians – perhaps the vast majority – this may seem like a dark and impenetrable debate. But a not insignificant number of voters – especially on the right side of the political spectrum – seem to see it as a highly relevant and important issue.
How the WEF went rogue
The World Economic Forum is best thought of as a fancy think tank. It has no real power, but it publishes studies and policy papers. Each year it also hosts a closely watched conference in Davos – several days of speeches, public discussions and private chats – which regularly attracts key political and business leaders from around the world, along with the occasional socially conscious movie star.
It’s both an impressive conglomeration of people and an easily mocked affair. If nothing else, it’s a triumph of event planning.
There is much that one could criticize about “Davos” (the name of the city has become synonymous with the forum) and what it represents. But in recent years, the World Economic Forum has become a focal point for conspiracy theorists — the inspiration for one new wave of stories about powerful people conspiring in the shadows to impose their dark agenda on the masses, similar to the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group in previous eras.
Those conspiracy theories really took off during the pandemic. Last year, the WEF capitalized on a flurry of emails and phone calls that flooded the Senate as a basic income bill was submitted for consideration. The ethics commissioner was inundated with requests to investigate alleged links between MPs and the WEF.
Poilièvre alluded to one conspiracy theory when he called the “great resetin November 2020. A year and a half later, while running for leadership of the Conservative Party, he vowed that no minister in any government he led would be allowed to attend the WEF’s annual conference.
Poilièvre is also not the only conservative concerned about the World Economic Forum. Leslyn Lewis, infrastructure critic in the party’s shadow cabinet, has been even more pronounced.
The first thing to notice about Poilièvre’s promise and the criticism of Bernier is how profoundly the Conservative Party’s official stance on Davos has changed.
Prime Minister Harper himself addressed the forum 2010 And 2012. Several conservative ministers were present 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 And 2015. John Baird, who co-chaired Poilièvre’s campaign, made the trip more than once.
In theory, the World Economic Forum could be invoked as part of a larger critique of recent economic orthodoxy or the uneven outcomes of globalization and policies such as free trade and corporate tax cuts. But a political leader could articulate such an argument while making it clear that he does not subscribe to the most sinister theories about the organization.
WATCH: Erin O’Toole makes final speech to the House of Commons
It is those theories that former Conservative leader Erin O’Toole advanced in his own last speech to the House of Representatives this week and in the next interview with CBC Radio’s The House.
After reminding colleagues of Canada’s long history of promoting and working within multilateral organizations, O’Toole told MPs that “we allow conspiracy theories about the UN or the World Economic Forum to go unchallenged, or we write sinister motives to these organizations or people in a way that is simply not true or fair.”
If there is an explanation for why the Conservatives are talking about WEF – especially in the context of the Portage-Lisgar midterm elections – it could be found in a research published last year by Abacus Data.
Abacus found that 20 percent of all respondents said it was definitely or probably true that “the World Economic Forum is a group of global elites with a secret strategy for imposing their ideas on the world.” But support for the idea was strongest among Conservative and People’s Party voters – 30 percent among CPC supporters, 62 percent among PPC supporters. (The margin of error for those sub-samples is higher.)
‘The dark side of some of these ideas’
If Poilièvre is concerned about Bernier – and he certainly acts the way he is – it might make sense to bully the leader of the People’s Party about WEF, at least as a short-term political tactic.
In the long run, there are much bigger things than a single by-election to worry about.
Amarnath Amarasingama professor at Queen’s University who has studied conspiracy theories said this week that “what we’re seeing here isn’t so much Poilièvre pushing conspiracy theories himself, but meeting voters where they are – and unfortunately, after the pandemic, many of these conspiracy theories are in the hands of more and more voters.”
“Many of these ideas about so-called globalist agendas and individual freedoms being curtailed for the sake of the collective became heavily mainstreamed because of pandemic policies. I fear most politicians who follow these ideas, because they think their constituents want them to. they talk about it don’t fully understand the dark side of some of these ideas. They have a superficial understanding of how damaging these ideas can be to our democratic discourse,” Amarasingam said via email.
“To them, it just sounds like they are advancing individual liberties and Canadian economic interests. But these ideas, to these conspiratorial communities, come from a deep well of apocalyptic thinking, anti-Semitism, and far-right populism. Politicians need to be careful not to inadvertently mainstream these views. in their campaigns.”
On a very basic level, the mistrust and suspicion at the center of conspiracy theories seem to run counter to the trust and cohesion needed for democracy to function. But Amarasingham’s view – that politicians emulate their voters – is also consistent with something else O’Toole told the House of Commons this week.
If politicians continue to let conspiracy theories go unchallenged, he said, “we are allowing others to set the debate for us and we risk others setting the course for this country because too many members on all sides of this room… followers of our followers when we should be leaders.”
And if leaders are too willing to follow their followers, there’s no telling where they—and Canadian democracy—could end up.