The biggest loser: John Turmel is making his 99th try for office this fall

John Turmel has been running for office for 40 years without success. He'll make his 99th attempt in Brantford during the federal election.

'Quitters never win. Winners never quit.'

John 'The Engineer' Turmel, who holds the Guinness World Record for most attempts at elected office, holds forth in his cluttered home office. He'll be running for the 99th time in this federal election, trying for a seat in Brantford-Brant. (Anand Ram/CBC)

Brantford, Ont. long ago became accustomed to a record-setting 99.

But when the writ drops for the federal election, Wayne Gretzky's hometown will have a different reason to remember the number — a far less glorious one.

John Turmel — already recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the world's most prolific political candidate — is set to run in the riding of Brantford-Brant. It will be his 99th attempt at winning office over a 40-year period of electoral futility.

Starting with the spring 1979 national vote, Turmel has stood in almost every federal, provincial and municipal contest he could find, including byelections. He's travelled as far afield as Nova Scotia to put his name on a ballot.

His best showing came in the fall of 1994 — his 37th campaign — when he captured 4,563 votes in a losing bid to become chair of the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton. His worst result came from a Feb. 2016 provincial byelection in Whitby-Oshawa, his 88th effort. He received just 11 votes that time.

And the last time his share of the ballots cast topped 1 per cent was in a fall 1997 municipal campaign in Ottawa. For him, that was 54 elections ago.

I ran as the champion of the gamblers, hookers and dope smokers- John Turmel

Still, Turmel, who has gone from fresh-faced 28-year-old engineering grad to 68-year-old retiree over the course of his perpetual candidacy, remains resolute. 

"Quitters never win. Winners never quit," he said. "I'm not going to get upset that the 'slows' don't get the gist of my message."

A self-described "Libertarian Socred," Turmel has run both as an Independent and as a candidate for parties he's invented — the Christian Credit, Abolitionist and Pauper parties, to name a few.

But his political career, which now centres on his efforts to outlaw interest charges and convert the Bank of Canada into a source of free money for citizens, arose from a singular obsession: gambling.

Back in the mid-1970s, when he was an electrical engineering student at Carleton University, Turmel enrolled in a mathematics-of-gambling course and discovered that he had a natural aptitude for counting cards. He soon figured out that he'd rather make his living playing blackjack and poker than sitting behind a desk in an office. There was one big obstacle to his dream job, however: games of chance were still illegal in Canada.

Turmel was not dissuaded. He studied the gaming laws and identified a series of what he believed were loopholes. He then began to organize blackjack nights in Ottawa-area homes and rented rooms, changing locations each time and getting other players to take turns as dealer in an effort to dance around the legal definition of a "common gaming house." (One tournament, held at the Carleton Faculty Club, ending up costing him his teaching assistant day-job.)

Turmel was arrested and convicted on multiple occasions. So he decided to run for office, choosing the riding of Ottawa West.

"I wanted to run for Parliament to legalize gambling. That was my original intent," Turmel said recently as he sat in the cluttered office of his Brantford home, surrounded by mementos of his legal and political battles.

"And then I said, 'Well, I might as well legalize drugs too, since that's a doctor issue, not a cop one. And I may as well legalize prostitution, because ugly people have a right to get laid, right?' So I ran as the champion of the gamblers, hookers and dope smokers."

He received 193 votes — 0.35 per cent of all ballots cast — finishing last.

A young John Turmel displays a news story about his exploits outside of a 1982 court hearing. (Michael Stuparyk/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

The defeat only seemed to make him more determined.

Trumel doubled-down on his gaming crusade, organizing even more elaborate blackjack and poker nights with uniformed staff, free food and drink, and sometimes disco music. He started advertising the events in newspapers and paid for buses to bring in bettors from Montreal and the United States. At the height of his efforts in the early 1990s, he was openly running two mini-casinos in Ottawa — employing 100 people and clearing $1 million a year in profits, according to court testimony.

And in his spare time he devoted himself to politics, running for office as many as five times a year. He developed a pugnacious campaigning style: picketing the events of other candidates with hand-painted signs while wearing his trademark white construction hat and Royal Flush card tie, crashing debates and meetings to which he hadn't been invited.

"I show up and take a chair. I know they need cops to take me away. I tell them, 'Go get a badge and a gun. I ain't moving,'" said Turmel. "That's how I protest the undemocratic nature of a meeting where I'm excluded."

Turmel won his bet on legalized gambling in 1993, when Ontario and Quebec followed Manitoba's lead and introduced provincial casinos. He became a professional card shark, splitting his time between the tables in Atlantic City, his court-ordered community service in Ottawa and gigs playing accordion at seniors' residences.

A decade later, he travelled to Brantford to seek a provincial seat. Finding a poker game that he liked at the local casino, he decided to make a permanent move to the city.

This election will be his ninth attempt to get elected as a representative for Brantford-Brant — four times federally and five provincially.

Independent candidate John Turmel delays proceedings by taking to the stage before the all-candidates debate for the Toronto Centre federal byelection at Jarvis Collegiate in Toronto on November 20, 2013. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty Images)

Running for office isn't as difficult as people think, said Turmel.

Elections Canada no longer requires the $1,000 deposit. He travels to his chosen riding once to collect the mandated 100 signatures. If there's a debate to participate in (or crash), he goes back again.

It requires only a little of his time and none of his money.

"I run a $0 campaign," said Turmel. "I go to the meetings and I answer calls and I answer the questionnaires. But I don't spend money on a long shot. The payoff isn't good enough."

He said he doesn't even watch the results on election night. 

"I usually wait until the next day to find out what happened. It really doesn't matter which of the lesser politicians wins," he said. "These are pretty mediocre people that you find running in elections. 'Slows'. You almost never run into a 'quick.'"

Turmel said he is hoping to build a coalition of small parties who will support his vow to abolish interest fees.

But his belief in his own intellectual superiority (his website URL is smartestman.ca) and his status as a climate change denier, anti-vaxxer, 9/11 conspiracy theorist and true-believer in the virtues of drinking urine probably preclude a wider political movement.

Fringe parties and candidates do play an important role in Canada's electoral system, said UBC sociologist Chris MacKenzie, the author of a book on small political movements.

"They keep the purity of the democratic process going," he said. "They tend to be started by aggrieved populations and have this moral absolutism at their core."

But like Turmel, such candidates often struggle to break through with voters because they are unwilling, or unable, to make compromises and form alliances, MacKenzie said.

"There's typically a failure to recognize that this is an organizational system," he said.

John Turmel, on anti-interest and accordions

3 years ago
Duration 0:46
You may know about John Turmel, who's running for political office for the 99th time, is that he's against the idea of interest. What you may not know is that he's written poems about it and plays the accordion.

Turmel can be touchy about how his ideas are portrayed.

In 2010, he sued the CBC for defamation after he appeared on an episode of Dragons' Den, seeking a $100,000 investment to help start a local currency for Brantford based on poker chips. Turmel was upset that his pitch was edited down for broadcast; he also took umbrage at one host's suggestion that he "burst into flames" and another's observation that he was "blowing air up a dead horse's ass."

Turmel, who always represents himself in court, lost the case. The network was awarded $7,400 in costs, which has yet to be collected. "I stiffed them for the bill," he said, laughing.

Turmel no longer plays cards. He quit when his Old Age Security payments started flowing three years ago. He said he doesn't miss the stress of poker "combat."

But he can't see himself giving up politics.

The man who lists himself as John 'The Engineer' Turmel on ballots said he feels a professional obligation to keep trying to "fix" Canada's financial system — no matter how long the odds.

"I can't stop," he said. "You really think I want that on my epitaph? 'He gave up'?"

"When they look back at my career, they'll say 99 times he offered to reprogram the Bank of Canada and give the people interest free credit cards. Most of the time they never heard about it and they just voted for their favourite colour."


Jonathon Gatehouse

CBC Investigative Journalist

Jonathon Gatehouse has covered news and politics at home and abroad, reporting from dozens of countries. He has also written extensively about sports, covering seven Olympic Games and authoring a best-selling book on the business of pro-hockey. He works for the national investigative unit in Toronto.

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