In the past year, Maxime Bernier has truly evolved to become Canada’s version of a Donald Trump Light, with — admittedly — better hair and fitness, but similar far-right racist leanings, anti-immigrant rhetoric and the ability to utter contemptible and factually inaccurate nonsense on social media.
I resent the fact that I’m even devoting a column to him, because — like Trump — this grifter relies on people responding to his outlandish nonsense to talk about him, and here I am knowingly (and regrettably) falling for it.
But his latest Twitter tirade, attacking 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, necessitates setting the record straight for those who might even think for a moment that his cyber-bullying has a shred of nuance, logic or a justification propping it up. It doesn’t.
“‘I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic,’ says mentally unstable Greta Thunberg. It’s just mind-boggling that such nonsense is now being taken seriously as basis for policy. Our leftist political and media elites have gone crazy.”
This is what a 56-year-old grown-ass man who is a sitting MP, the founder and leader of the People’s Party of Canada, who came within a whisper of the Conservative Party leadership and who aspires to the top political position in the country deemed perfectly acceptable to tweet out.
Let’s begin with what should be blatantly obvious for even his most ardent defenders: it takes a mighty small man to call a teenager “mentally unstable.” It takes an even smaller man to call a teenager “mentally unstable” for daring to fight for a better world and mobilizing people around the planet to fight for it, too. It takes an insensitive and uninformed man to refer to someone who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome as “mentally unstable,” knowingly propagating misleading and dangerous tropes about the condition.
For the uniformed, Asperger’s syndrome is a high-functioning form of autism. While people with this diagnosis may often lack social skills and have odd facial ticks, their language and cognitive skills are not compromised.
Thunberg has, in fact, been incredibly candid about her diagnosis and while she understands that some people may consider her strange and out of the norm, she considers her autism a kind of “superpower” because it helps her focus on what is important to her.
“I’m not public about my diagnosis to ‘hide’ behind it,” she said in an interview with a U.K. publication, “but because I know many ignorant people still see it as an ‘illness,’ or something negative. And believe me, my diagnosis has limited me before.”
It is, indeed, a fact, that Asperger’s is often associated with obsessive compulsive behaviour, and there’s no question that all people possessed by a purpose tend to exhibit that in spades. Is her take-no-prisoners climate-action activism partially propelled by her diagnosis or is she simply someone diagnosed with Asperger’s who happens to be overwhelmingly motivated by scientific evidence that points to an environmental tipping point for this planet? Does it really matter? When 99 per cent of scientists agree that global warming is real and caused by human activity, isn’t purposefully choosing to focus on Thunberg’s diagnosis as a means of discrediting her and her message just plain underhanded and intellectually lazy?
One of the most inspiring and deeply moving images of 2019 was a photo of young Greta Thunberg meeting Jane Goodall at the Davos Economic Summit this past January. The viral photo shows a quietly confident and smiling 16-year-old Greta looking up at Goodall, a leading environmental campaigner, who is seven decades her senior. The image, which was shared around the world, communicates the determination, the hope and resilience of two women who, in many ways, represent the passing of the movement’s baton.
Dr. Goodall has called Thunberg “completely amazing” and “brave” for calling out the political establishment for dragging its feet on climate action. Thunberg calls Goodall a “true hero.” The mutual respect of these two women, who have often been maligned by the mainstream for daring to point to corporate-driven interests that jeopardize the planet and all life on it, is on full display in the picture. It made my heart soar when I first saw it.
Bernier saw none of that, or if he did, it failed to resonate with him. Instead, in Thunberg he sees an ignorant and mentally unstable pawn being used by the “leftist political elites” for their own purposes. The predictable pundits came to his defence, with National Post columnist Barbara Kay thanking Bernier for his “extraordinary rationality and courage.” Imagine thinking it takes “courage” to attack a neuro-atypical teenager who is fighting for the future of this planet and believing it’s “extraordinary rational” to question the existence and severity of global warning — again, something a vast majority of scientific experts overwhelmingly agree on.
In reaction to the completely justified public backlash he received, Bernier tweeted out another weak response:
“If she’s just a ‘child,’ why should we care about her immature and simplistic opinion on policies that affect millions? Why is she invited to the UN and getting massive media coverage? How convenient that we can’t criticize this alarmist ‘child’ urging everyone to ‘panic.’”
I understand that a grown man with years of political experience under his belt who casually forgets sensitive government documents at his girlfriend’s house and then has to resign because of it might not have the intellectual know-how required to understand that calling someone “mentally unstable” is abuse, not legitimate criticism, so maybe someone in his entourage can explain it to him.
Bernier describes his political agenda as “smart populism” and claims he doesn’t pander to “special interest groups.” Only, he does. He panders to the disenfranchised who have no faith in government, the people for whom the facts mean nothing at all and prefer to be led by their prejudices and fears, fuelled by misinformation or a complete lack of information altogether. Bernier’s voters are fearful of “mass immigration” when Canada is experiencing no such thing. Yet, the very same people are not in the least bit bothered by global warming because they can’t immediately see it with their own eyes and so it must not exist.
Bernier isn’t the only one bothered by Thunberg. The contemptuous misogyny and ageism are on full display every time she’s mocked by climate-change deniers and corporate interests who insist she has no free agency and is some helpless puppet in a masterful universal conspiracy to convince the world of something that isn’t real.
For these folks it’s easier to second-guess the motives and free agency of a young activist, and to use her neurodiversity as a means of discrediting and vilifying her, instead of looking at the alarming evidence of what the world is up against. The planet is on fire and obnoxious politicians are making fun of a young woman who has managed to galvanize and inspire a movement that leads with hope and demands real action now. That demand is not only contemptible to them, it’s terrifying. They palpably resent every inch of that public space she’s occupying. Make no mistake, this coming election, the real fools will be those who fall for Bernier; a politician who offers nothing but childish insults in the face of youthful, principled determination, hope and indisputable scientific evidence. ■