Doorstep Postings: The politically (and sometimes literally) homeless fringe

Sheldon Bergson of Thornhill, Ont., legally changed his name to Above Znoneofthe in order to appear at the bottom of any election ballot he appears on as Znoneofthe, Above. (Credit: @meslin)

This is the 10th in a series of opinion columns on the 2022 Ontario provincial election, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

If you’re involved in an upcoming provincial race in the Greater Toronto Area—or the subsequent mayoral election in Toronto per se—you’d better have a Kevin Clarke strategy.

The former teacher and businessman, who’s much better known as an advocate for the homeless and for prison reform, will crash your debate and commit what was at one time a remarkable and to some, a troubling offence: making a scene in public.

Yelling, preaching, singing, name-calling, destroying phone books, playing a broom like it was an electric guitar, all of the above and much more. 

Should he barge into the debate hall—assuming he makes it in, which isn’t always the case—the thing to do is to watch everyone else’s reaction to Clarke. The so-called serious candidates, message-disciplined for days, will shift uncomfortably and give the side-eye. Some in the crowd will laugh or cluck their tongues. The moderator, depending on their skill, will try to defuse the tension with an off-the-cuff joke, make a polite request for him to tone it down if he wants to attend, or fall silent and try to keep it together. 

Most importantly, however, is the invisible clock that starts ticking until the first person starts shouting for someone to call the police. Sometimes he’s hauled away, and sometimes he gets to sit at the table and actually take questions and challenge the other candidates while everyone visibly tries to ignore Mr. Clarke’s loud voice and obvious signs of mental illness and trauma. 

This scene, which has replayed itself since the 1990s, is one of many microcosms illustrating how Canada works. Anything that’s more intense than a polite conversation about the weather or hockey is first treated as a joke, then a nuisance, and finally, something that must be quietly tolerated until it mercifully ends or is broken up by the heavy hand of law enforcement. 

But whether he knows it or not, Kevin Clarke has received a measure of validation. More so than any of the other perennial candidates such as the “Super Loser” John Turmel or the Jewish community’s very own Sheldon Bergson—who legally changed his name to Above Znoneofthe in 2016—he has become the prototypical political outsider.

Clarke was the self proclaimed voice of the people before anyone was “For the People,” long before populism and what to do about it was the hot topic, and long before Serious Canadian Political People unveiled their own corporate attempts to capture that energy in a bottle and harness it for their own mainstream ends.  

And If you’re one of the growing number of independent legislators who refuse to bow out gracefully before June 2, you must of necessity follow the trail Kevin Clarke blazed. Without the branding of a major party behind you or some nebulous “central office” to tell you what to do or to blame for anything that goes wrong, you’ve got to get your name out there any way you can to have a hope of winning.

People who were once your friends and fellow party faithful will treat you the same way the Serious Folk treat Kevin Clarke. You’re the one peddling misinformation and untruths. You’re dangerous and need to be behind bars. Your personal life and mental/physical health, previously sacrosanct and not up for discussion, is now fair game. They’ll say these things publicly, while privately wishing they could support you or sending donations under the table. It’s a lot to handle and not everyone handles it well.

But when mainstream politicians confront pandemics, wars abroad, and the basic necessities of life becoming more and more scarce with talking points and half-baked plans, Kevin Clarke looks a lot less like a nuisance and more like someone ahead of the curve.

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.