Meet John Turmel, Canada's most-defeated election candidate
In this file photo, John Turmel holds up a bag said to contain marijuana on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, during a protest on May 14, 2003. (THE CANADIAN PRESS / Jonathan Hayward)
Josh K. Elliott, CTVNews.ca
Published Tuesday, April 10, 2018 7:00AM EDT
Canadian John Turmel is arguably the most determined would-be politician in the world.
He’s set Guinness World Records by running for public office – and losing – more than 90 times, and when he leaves an all-candidate debate, it’s often with a police escort.
But all those failures haven’t stopped Turmel from running for municipal, provincial or federal office as an independent candidate, again and again and again. And he says nothing will stop him from seeking a provincial seat once more in the Ontario election this summer.
“I don’t feel bad whatsoever about not winning these elections,” Turmel told CTVNews.ca by telephone from his home in Brantford, Ont.
The 67-year-old has been an eccentric figure at general and byelection debates since he started running for office in 1979. He’s nearly impossible to miss, with his lucky playing card tie, his outspoken presence and his white hardhat plastered with the name “John ‘The Engineer’ Turmel.”
“The Engineer” is one of many nicknames the Ontario resident has adopted, after earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Carleton University in the 1970s. Some of his other nicknames, such as “Jiu Jitsu John,” “Spock” and the “Taj Professor,” seem to be ones he uses for himself on his website and YouTube page.
Perhaps his most notable nickname is John “the World Record Holder” Turmel. According to the Guinness Book of World Records website, he holds records for most elections contested (90) and lost (89), although he’s contested three more elections since that count was taken in late 2016. He says the next-closest contender for his records died years ago with only thirty-something elections under his belt, so he feels quite secure in his title as the world’s most unsuccessful election candidate.
In fact, the only time Turmel wasn’t defeated in 2008, when his bid for a Guelph federal byelection victory (or loss) was cut short by a general election.
But he says he keeps coming back to run another day because he’s irked by the “generic” nature of most politicians. “They’re all the same,” he said. “No matter what the issue, they’re in favour of it being better.”
Dragons, gambling, combat and courtrooms
Turmel is combative, passionate and long-winded, with strong views on gambling, government overreach and medical marijuana, to name just a few of his favourite topics. He thinks elections are rigged, the banking system is broken, and that Donald Trump is being victimized by a shadowy cabal of career U.S. government employees, dubbed the “deep state” by right-wing conspiracy theorists. He also strongly believes in a number of theories that fly in the face of science, such as climate change is a hoax and drinking urine can heal your body.
And if he ever got into office, Turmel’s plan would be simple: he’d legalize all forms of sex, drugs, gambling and prostitution, then he’d “fix the money system and then get out of people’s lives.” He’d also implement what he calls his “time-based currency” system, which he says is based on an “equation” developed by Jesus to eliminate usury.
Turmel spends much of his time championing lawsuits against the government in court, but that’s not his full-time job. “I’m a professional gambler,” he said. “Professional gambling is basically combat, same with politics.” He says he “retired” from that self-styled career two years ago, when he started receiving his pension.
Turmel’s boisterous approach to politics has been well-documented over the years, both in local newspapers and, more recently, on YouTube, where video shows him being thrown out of byelections in Sault Ste. Marie (2017) and Ottawa-Vanier (2016). His own YouTube page is also a treasure trove of off-beat political views.
Turmel is also very familiar with the Canadian court system, having participated in several lawsuits, appealed a number of marijuana-related rulings or appeared to face charges on numerous occasions throughout his adult life.
He has a handful of minor convictions such as running an illegal gambling house, and being guilty of contempt of court by breaching a publication ban on his own brother’s drug possession trial by posting about it on his website.
But one of Turmel’s favourite cases to discuss is the libel lawsuit he launched against two cast members of the reality TV show “Dragon’s Den.” He appeared on a 2010 episode of the show, in which two of the Dragons mocked his pitch.
His libel suit was ultimately dismissed and his appeal request refused, but Turmel didn’t give up the cause entirely. He took to YouTube in 2011 to argue his case against the Dragons, in a 69-minute tirade that has garnered just over 200 views since it was posted.
Making a scene with the 'King of the Paupers'
Turmel is the founder and sole member of the Pauper Party of Canada, so there are few who have fought in the political trenches alongside him. His one longtime companion is his girlfriend, Eva, who has been with him for 13 years. Aside from her, he says people are “too dumbed down” to take on his crusade against the banks.
“Mr. Spock never needed any help from the slows in reprogramming a central computer to save a planet,” he said, in an apparent reference to Star Trek. “Neither do I.”
One person who has been in Turmel’s corner – albeit temporarily – is Above Znoneofthe, another independent candidate who legally changed his name from Sheldon Adelson in 2016. (The name appears as “Znoneofthe, Above” at the bottom of an election ballot.) Znoneofthe has contested five elections and faced Turmel in three of them, including the Ottawa-Vanier federal byelection and the Sault Ste. Marie provincial byelection. Znoneofthe received 164 votes to Turmel’s 48 in the Ottawa-Vanier byelection, and 313 to Turmel’s 47 in Sault Ste. Marie.
“I was inspired by him – once,” Znoneofthe told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview. That was in 2016, when Turmel and Znoneofthe were told they would not be allowed to participate in the Ottawa-Vanier byelection’s all-candidates’ debate. Turmel argued that independent candidates also deserved a seat at the table, in a heated exchange that was captured on video.
The video posted online shows Turmel’s yelling at volunteers and, later, police. Znoneofthe can be seen sitting quietly nearby throughout the argument, which ends with both candidates being escorted off the debate stage by police.
“Get off the f***ing stage!” a man shouts at Turmel in the video, drawing hoots and applause from the audience. His eventual departure from the stage also drew cheers and clapping.
Znoneofthe says he was thankful to have Turmel stand up for his democratic rights.
WARNING: The following video contains harsh language.
Turmel had another tense stand-off at a debate in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., last year, which Znoneofthe described as “a little unnecessary.” He said the debate volunteers were “nice people,” whom he didn’t think deserved to be shouted down.
“It’s one thing to make a point for democracy,” said Znoneofthe, who was also at the debate. “It’s another thing to make it a stunt all the time.”
Turmel insists he’s only ever been arrested – never charged – for his debate confrontations.
“They exclude me from debates, that’s how much of a motor-mouth I am,” he said.
Znoneofthe says Turmel’s theatrics can make it difficult for other independents to be seen as anything more than “fringe”candidates.
“You think, ‘Ugh, that’s what all those other parties are,’” he said.
“If that’s what happens when you’re the Guinness World Record holder for running the most times, I’m not going for his record,” Znoneofthe said. Znoneofthe says he will contest the provincial election in his hometown of Thornhill, and if that doesn’t work out, he’ll change his name back to Sheldon.
But Turmel seems entirely content to remain on the fringe, where he’s proud to use his democratic right to free speech to promote his “grand, epic and righteous” cause.
And, perhaps, to build on his impressively ineffective election record.
“No one’s ever going to crack mine,” he says.