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Horning In Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Horning In

Satirical politics is a family affair for this second-gen Rhino, but does politics still have room for humour?

“Rhino Takes Brazilian Election Victory With Aplomb,” read the 1959 New York Times headline. A young rhinoceros named Cacareco (which translates to “rubbish”) had just trampled her competitors to become the top candidate in São Paulo's municipal elections, voted in by residents who were frustrated with soaring inflation, crumbling infrastructure and the ruling government’s inability to address either. “Better to elect a rhino than an ass,” one voter remarked in an interview with the media.

It was a message that resonated with a certain set of politically disenfranchised Canadian eccentrics. Four years after Cacareco’s triumph, she became the inspiration for a Montreal party with the dual aim of poking fun at the political system and entertaining the voting public. In 1963, physician and writer Jacques Ferron founded the Rhinoceros Party of Canada, which he described as an “intellectual guerrilla party.” The party picked Cornelius the First, a local rhino from Granby Zoo, as the symbolic leader, ostensibly because of Cornelius’s and politicians’ shared qualities of being, as the party line went, “thick-skinned, slow-moving, dim-witted, [able to] move fast as hell when in danger, and [having] large, hairy horns growing out of the middle of their faces.”

Humour has always been central to the Rhino Party. Marxist in the Groucho sense, their mission, as stated on the party website, is to “make Canadians laugh while laughing at politicians.” Over the years, candidates have promised to repeal the law of gravity, nationalize Tim Hortons, count the Thousand Islands to make sure Americans haven’t stolen any, put the national debt on Visa, turn Montreal’s St. Catherine Street into the world’s longest bowling alley and ensure that every Canadian experience a monthly orgasm. If they ever win, they also promise to immediately dissolve and force a second election. Of course, the basic credo of the party has been “a promise to keep none of [their] promises.” 

The Rhino Party’s form of absurdism has been a consistent presence in Canadian politics for the past sixty years. They’ve never won a single seat, but they did receive over one hundred thousand votes in the 1980 election, in which a professional clown who ran for the party placed second in Montreal’s Laurier riding, beating out the New Democrat and Progressive Conservative candidates. In 1984, they received the fourth-largest number of votes in the country, beating out all but the three major federal parties. More recently, in 2019, they even managed to steal a few votes away from People’s Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier, by running another candidate named Maxime Bernier in his home riding of Beauce, Quebec. Even if most Canadians aren’t aware of the party’s full history, the Rhinos have built a reputation for themselves as reliable entertainers—and I was lucky enough to grow up with a front-row ticket to the show. But in today’s political landscape, when the system already feels so much like a circus, is there still room for the clowns to have their fun?

“Lawyer bears baby Rhino,” read the birth announcement, buried deep in the Sarnia Observer. It was 1991 and I had just entered the world with my political allegiances pre-determined. Three years prior, my father had paid $200 and gathered the necessary twenty-five signatures in order to register as a first-time candidate for the Rhino Party in our home riding of Sarnia–Lambton, Ontario. His campaign t-shirt was emblazoned with the slogan “We are not sheep,” reiterated on the back in Latin and accompanied by an illustration of a sheep encircled and crossed out, like a no-smoking sign. I still have one, threadbare and yellowed with age, that I wear every election. It reminds me of how I looked up to him as a kid, not yet understanding politics, just knowing that it seemed fun. 

In a local news story from my father’s first campaign, the reporter scoured his life for a way to frame him accurately: his stylish home (an artsy progressive?), his oil refinery job (a blue-collar hero?) and his side business selling canoes and kayaks from our home’s garage (an enterprising hustler?). None of it seems to square with the “outrageous” political ties implied by a Rhino Party candidacy, and the reporter ultimately concludes that “when speaking to Mr. Elliott, there is no sign of radical behavior. He is not short a few bricks, his elevator goes to the top floor, and both oars—or at least paddles—are in the water. The bearded bespectacled man is simply voicing his political preference with tongue firmly planted in cheek.” The baffled journalist was correct: if my father was sincere about anything, it was the insincerity that he found in mainstream politics—he never missed an opportunity to call out politicians who toed party lines or relied on simple soundbites. 

Over the years, my dad continued to run, and I dutifully wore an election t-shirt to school during his campaigns, clipped newspaper articles and handed out lawn signs to our neighbours. I began to understand the uniqueness of my father’s Rhino affiliation, especially in our conservative town, and how much it was shaping my own politics. The Rhino ethos was appealing to an angst-ridden adolescent like myself. My father’s campaign materials boasted that he was the “revolutionary alternative” and exhorted people to “stick it to the man.” He opposed the local Christian Heritage candidate, supported gay marriage and environmental protection, and proposed a “two-beer” health-care system (because everyone feels better after two beers). This was a political education that made an impact, unlike my unbearably dry high school civics class that tried to cram the fundamentals of democracy into a nine-week curriculum. Even if I couldn’t fully explain it yet, I knew when I looked at my father, bearded and disheveled as he stood alongside the traditional candidates in group photos, that he was offering an important alternative to the status quo.

My father’s first election was his best outcome: 1 percent (408) of the total votes in Sarnia–Lambton. Nevertheless, he persisted. In a 2006 interview with the Sarnia Observer, when asked why he continued to run for office, my father explained that he was using satire to show just how shallow the promises and platitudes of the political parties could be. 

The real power of the Rhino Party’s antics has always been to reveal the absurdity inherent in the political system. They didn’t create it, they just stripped it of all pomp and circumstance and then topped it with a clown nose for good measure. In the 1988 party platform, their solution to the federal deficit was to transfer it to a government social services program “where it will be reduced through a series of budget cuts.” From a certain perspective, the very idea of a federal deficit is nonsense (money is made up!). But also: social services programs are dealing with massive budget cuts, in which very tangibly real and necessary services disappear through the magic of economic trickery. That’s how the Rhinos work: strip all pretense away so that the system is revealed for the scam that it is, and then point out all the damage that the scam has wrought.

Eventually, the bureaucratic system got the best of the Rhinos. The party temporarily dissolved in 1993 in protest of Bill C-114, passed by the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing with the aim of both increasing voter accessibility and the legitimacy of political parties. While the bill introduced some measures that benefitted voters—mail-in ballots, for example—it required that each political party nominate candidates in at least fifty ridings and that each candidate pay $1,000 (which would be partially refunded by the federal government only if the candidate won 15 percent or more of the vote—which the Rhino Party never managed to get). If a party could not pay the $50,000 total entry fee, then they would be automatically removed from the electoral system. The Rhinos viewed these new requirements as deeply unfair, preventing candidates who were economically disadvantaged from participating in the electoral process, and their refusal to fulfil them led to the disappearance of the party from the political sphere. The Rhinos weren’t alone in condemning the political fallout of the bill; the Globe and Mail called it “the worst violation of Canadians’ right of free expression in years,” and fourteen registered political parties contested the election—a Canadian record.

In the years following, former Rhino candidates kept the party’s spirit alive. François “Yo” Gourd, a 1979 Rhino candidate, started Les Entartistes, a faction of L’internationale des Anarcho-Patissiers (International Pie Anarchists) whose raison d’être was throwing cream pies in the faces of prominent politicians. In Quebec, targets included Jean Charest and Stéphane Dion. “The federal government has closed the door to protest parties, so people are going to find other outlets,” explained former Rhino candidate Charlie McKenzie. “Now it is with pies.” My father, for his part, kept running as an independent candidate, calling himself a “Bonehead” as an homage to his beloved party. After the contested electoral requirements were struck down in 2004, due to the guarantee of the right to be a candidate outlined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Rhinos stampeded back into the political arena with two candidates in by-elections in 2007 and seven in the 2008 federal election.

Today, electoral reform remains a key issue for the party, and one that they approach with an almost uncharacteristic solemnity. Elections in Canada are decided by a first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, in which the candidate with the highest number of votes wins a seat in the House of Commons to represent their riding. Under FPTP, candidates can win seats with far less than a majority of the total votes, and the proportion of seats won by each party doesn’t necessarily match the proportion of the votes garnered. This leads to election results that don’t reflect the popular vote, including “majority” governments elected by less than 50 percent of voters—the last time a majority federal government was elected by a majority of voters in Canada was in 1984.

In 2022, to draw attention to the faults of FPTP, the Rhino-affiliated “Longest Ballot Committee” collected five thousand nomination signatures and organized to put thirty-four Independent candidates on the ballot of the Mississauga–Lakeshore by-election. Many of these candidates were from outside of the riding and even outside of Ontario, meant as a dig to sitting MPs and ministers who live outside of their own ridings (which is permitted under the current Elections Act). “The voting system we have right now in Canada was put in place 250 years ago in rural UK,” the party said in a Facebook post about the initiative. “It is not a system that fits urban Canada now. This system is creating apathy and frustration inside the population … This is a serious threat to our democracy.” While overcrowding the list of candidates might seem confusing or even distracting to some, the action is a natural continuation of the Rhino Party’s “chaotic good” political strategy.

“For us, elections are a game, so we play the game with their rules, and we make fun of the rules,” explains Rhino Party leader (or, as he likes to flip the word, their “dealer”) Sébastien CoRhino, who ran in the Mississauga by-election despite living over one thousand kilometres away in Rimouski, Quebec. CoRhino, a musician and studio technician, has been involved with the party since 2008, when he ran as a candidate in Sherbrooke, Quebec while at university. For the head of a political party, even a satirical one, he’s refreshingly informal—his email signature apologizes for any “missed steaks” or “criminal offences under Canadian law”—and he quickly takes any opportunity to distance himself from the political establishment.

CoRhino runs the party with no staff, just a small team of volunteers. He points out that sitting politicians aren’t going to change something that keeps them in power, and recent history seems to prove him right. Justin Trudeau’s 2015 promise of electoral reform, intended to “make every vote count,” struck a hopeful note with voters who had become disillusioned with the FPTP system. In 2015, the Liberals won a majority government with just under 39 percent of the popular vote. By early 2017, Trudeau had abandoned the promise of reform entirely, ostensibly because of a lack of consensus around an alternative.

Vote, we are told, every time we express cynicism with the current political situation. Be a democratically engaged citizen. Make your voice heard! But when the first-past-the-post system produces such disproportionate results, and strategic voting often seems like the only sensible option, it’s not surprising that the average citizen is feeling cynical—or that voter turnout has decreased 6 percent, dropping to 63 percent, since 2015. In comparison, data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance shows that for countries within the OECD with non-compulsory voting, the highest voter turnout occurs under those with a proportional representation system, with Denmark (84.6 percent), Sweden (84.6 percent) and New Zealand (87.2 percent) topping the list.

I was able to vote for the first time in the 2011 election, and I was thrilled at the prospect of finally casting a ballot for the Rhino Party after years of watching my father campaign. Still, the guilt of not having voted strategically to oust my local rightwing MP nagged at me. Shouldn’t I have voted for the candidate most likely to prevent a Conservative win, even if they weren’t my candidate? Wasn’t I just wasting my ballot, choosing a fringe candidate? 

In her study of the effects of satirical content on political participation, political scientist Erica Petkov uses the term “productive cynicism” to define “a sense of frustration with the political status quo coupled with a desire to become engaged nonetheless.” This conflict echoes the philosophy of absurdism: the search to find meaning in a meaningless world. While political satire has often been relegated to shows, comedians and commentators who sit outside of the system—the Beaverton, Rick Mercer,  This Hour Has 22 Minutes— the Rhinos are committed to bringing their antics directly into the arena. “Today, everyday people remain frustrated with the archaic and out-of-touch political system which our leaders have refused to reform,” a recent post on the party website declares. “Instead of accepting apathy and alienation, we decided to do the opposite; and engaged directly with our democracy to make ourselves heard.” 

“When the dictators of tomorrow seriously promise things that I clearly could have said as a joke, where is my place in this discourse?” CoRhino’s question, posed recently on his Facebook page, sums up the challenge the party faces today. Trump, Ford, Johnson et al have shown us the dark side of absurdity; the distinctly unfunny reality of what can happen when a “joke” candidate is elected sincerely. The role of political satire has historically been to reveal the lunacy and ridiculousness of those in power, but we no longer need comedians to drive the point home—politicians do it well enough on Twitter, for all to see. 

Some lines from my father’s old speeches, which repeatedly call out the actions of “backroom power brokers, party hacks and corporate elites,” feel eerily familiar in the midst of a populist wave across global politics (never mind that today’s career politicians branding themselves as “outsiders” or “of the people” bear little resemblance to the blue-collar workers that filled the Rhino Party’s ranks in its heyday). In 2000, as I entered the fourth grade, my father argued in a campaign speech that Parliament had become the “playground of the political parties” who “consolidate their stranglehold on the political process,” while the average Canadian grows more and more cynical and alienated. Today’s populist politicians specifically target this brand of voter alienation, stoking anger and feeding upon fear in order to gain control of the system that caused it in the first place. Rather than seeing those alienated Canadians as tools to gain power, only to be forgotten after an election and further disenfranchised by a cruel and oppressive legislature, the Rhino Party has, since the 1960s, welcomed those Canadians into their ranks, giving them an alternative not only on the ballot but in the entire political process. 

“The enemy of humor is fear,” satirist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote in a 1958 article for Esquire. “Fear requires conformism. It draws people together into a herd, whereas laughter separates them as individuals ... In a conformist society, there is no place for the jester. He strikes a discordant tone, and therefore must be put down.” Reading this, I remember my father’s original campaign shirt: “We are not sheep.” The Rhinos aren’t trying to stoke QAnon levels of paranoia or drive their members to violent actions. They are trying to keep the “productive” part of Petkov’s productive cynicism alive, to remind us that the system really is flawed. But, more crucially, they remind us that there could be another way—and that there are others out there who believe in it.

The emails started landing in my inbox late last spring. One, with a subject line marked “Membership!!!”, informed me that Elections Canada had asked the party to confirm that they have the requested minimum of 250 members, an administrative task required of all parties every three years. On November 6, 2022, CoRhino sent a pleading follow-up to members to send in the necessary paperwork. “Currently, we are up against the wall,” he urged us. “If we do not have the requested forms within more or less 10 days, the Rhinoceros Party of Canada will be deregistered.” 

It’s not easy being a fringe candidate. My father ultimately stopped campaigning in part because he couldn’t get paid time off work in order to run. In an op-ed during one of his campaigns, he pointed out that when a local political campaign needs a full-time staff of a dozen-plus people, it “illustrates perfectly what is wrong with the state of Canadian politics today.” That was in 1998. Today, CoRhino tells me that he wishes he had more time outside of the work of navigating electoral bureaucracy to focus on long-term strategy. He’s planning a  “disorientation” weekend this summer, where party members and candidates from across the country will meet up to reevaluate their strategy, rethink their platform and restructure their internal organization. “We have sixty years behind [us], but where do we want to Go?” he wrote to me in an email, the capital-G seeming to emphasize the expanse of opportunity—and uncertainty— ahead of the party. He still believes that satire has a necessary place in politics but that “we have to be careful of how to do it,” acknowledging how easily things can become distorted in today’s political discourse. For the humour of the Rhino Party to make an impact, it must confront, not just contort, the damage wrought by the current power structure, and that requires real time, organization and effort. However, it should be noted that this summer’s planning session will take place in Quebec's Eastern Townships at ShazamFest, a circus festival “where the misfits fit in!”. Old antics die hard.

I write this from the house that my father built, both figuratively and literally. His first candidate registration form, from back in 1988, lists his address as “RR#2.” No street address, just a lot number on a rural road in a tiny hamlet, where he had recently finished constructing a modest two-bedroom. He was thirty-two, the age I turn this year. I look at the framed print of Albrecht Dürer’s 1515 woodcut, The Rhinoceros, hanging on the wall, the party’s logo and the same image I have tattooed on my back. Nearby, I see the bookshelves stacked with Che Guevara biographies and Far Side comics, Shakespearean comedies and firearm manuals, Kropotkin and Homer and No Logo and the Onion. Would I have the interest in politics, the skepticism for authority, or the optimism for social change if I hadn’t been born a baby Rhino? Somehow, I doubt it. 

The party ended up receiving 260 signatures before the November cut-off date, my own included. The Rhinos will live—and laugh—for at least one more election cycle, providing voters with what my father’s merch deemed “the revolutionary alternative.” I’ll be there with my carte membre à vie, ready to feel the smallest flicker of optimism as I cast my vote. ⁂

Blair Elliott is an event producer and writer based in Montreal.