In the Quebec riding of Beauce, Maxime Bernier is bringing badly needed levity to Canada’s looming federal election.
Not the Maxime Bernier who leads the populist rightwing People’s party of Canada most known for its anti-immigration stance
The other Maxime Bernier – a candidate running for the satirical Rhino party in the same district.
Bernier has been accused of intentionally trying to sow seeds of confusion in the riding (as Canada’s electoral districts are known), but he is taking his joke candidacy seriously by promising to focus on local issues close to residents’ hearts and wallets.
His campaign slogan? “If you’re not sure, vote for both.”
Political satire – whether it’s a joke party or delivered by a late-night television host – has long been considered an engine for apathy and cynicism.
However, poking fun at politicians and the power systems around them can actually make people more engaged, says Dr Sophia McClennen, a professor and researcher at Penn State, and the author of several books on the influence of political satire.
In the case of the Bernier stunt, she sees the joke as part of the Rhinos’ efforts to protect the nation’s democracy.
“We have data that shows people who watch satire shows vote, they send letters, they call Congress, they do all the metrics that you might use to determine whether somebody is politically [engaged],” said McClennen.
The Rhino leader, Sébastien Côrriveau, searched long and hard for a Bernier of his own, sending messages to at least 70 people with the name before Facebook blocked him for suspicious activity.
In the end, the chosen Bernier was the only one who agreed to run. “He is the best Maxime Bernier I could hope for,” said Côrriveau.
“It’s a stupid joke, but it works,” he added. “I’m very, very happy about it, because we have things to say as Rhinoceros. It sometimes sounds stupid, but there’s something hidden under it that’s very intelligent at the same time,” he says.
Political satire may be influencing Canadians in the same ways, too, particularly in these increasingly polarized times.
Canada’s Rhino party has unsuccessfully run candidates in federal elections off and on since 1963. In the party’s heyday, Pierre Trudeau once called them “the court jesters of the nation” – which the party took as a compliment.
The party has run on promises of repealing the law of gravity, reforming retail lottery laws by replacing cash prizes with senate seats and improving the economy by giving all Canadians a minimum of two jobs each.
Meanwhile, the CBC’s satirical news program This Hour Has 22 Minutes has been on air for 26 years and, more recently, Canadians have welcomed the acerbic wit of the Beaverton’s news website and TV program.
There, Beaverton headlines poke at Canadians’ political cynicism: “Trudeau wondering how long until it’s cool for him to do blackface again” and “Putin impressed Canadian voters don’t need help spreading disinformation”.
Cynicism isn’t always a bad thing, says McClennen. In fact, it can rally people behind political issues. She points to protest signs, which today poke fun rather than make serious and direct calls for action.
“There’s some energy there, right?” says McClennen. “I’m being critical of the system, but I’m being sassy and sarcastic while I do it. And people are responding to that at a level that we’ve never seen.”