08.08.2017 05:15 AM

This week’s column: fight night insight

Every political hack remembers where they were when the first black man was elected president of the United States, or when Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison, or (more recently, depressingly) when Comrade Donald Trump cheated his way into the White House. Those were big political events. 

But some of us even remember where we were when Liberal MP Justin Trudeau had a boxing match with Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau. March 31, 2012: where were you?

On that night, this writer was at the headquarters of the Sun News Network in Toronto, in the hallway they called a green room. Sun News had the rights to broadcast the Trudeau-Brazeau charity fight, and they’d been relentlessly hyping it – the Thrilla on the Hilla, I think someone called it – and the Sun types were openly pulling for the Conservative Senator, a former First Nations leader. 

Onscreen, on fight night, Ezra Levant and Brian Lilley were clearly having the time of their lives, with Levant mockingly calling Trudeau “the shiny pony,” over and over. They expected Brazeau – a burly, muscled black belt – to hurt Trudeau. 

So did I, frankly. Back then, this writer was friendly with the Montreal MP, and I occasionally gave him advice. If I’d been asked, I would have advised against challenging Brazeau. 

All of us knew the arguments in favour of it, of course. In those days, Trudeau was a backbench MP with not many accomplishments to his name. A win in the boxing ring would attract plenty of attention. 

A victory would also put to rest the insinuations that Justin Trudeau was a wimp and a dilettante, and not up to the task of defeating tough guys like Stephen Harper and Tom Mulcair. It would make him a winner, and it would make him the tough guy.

But the arguments against it were more compelling, I felt. One, he could lose – and he would simply not recover from such a loss. Ask Robert Stanfield, after that time he famously fumbled that football on the campaign trail: the loser tag, once attached, is virtually impossible to remove. 

Two, it was swinging at the wrong target. The Conservatives – and, as the House Bolshevik at Sun News, I was surrounded by a lot of Trudeau-hating Conservatives – intended to run a campaign that Trudeau was weak intellectually, not weak physically. Trudeau, I felt, was providing an answer to the wrong question. 

Third, politics being all about symbols, the symbolism of the Trudeau-Brazeau match made me queasy. As the Dad to an indigenous girl, I did not like the symbolism of a rich white man beating on a poor aboriginal man. It was a bit like colonialism, except it was on live TV. 

Anyway. None of that happened, of course. 

We all know what happened next: Trudeau destroyed Brazeau. He was no longer a wimp. He became even more famous. And he became the contender – for 24 Sussex. 

The Trudeau-Brazeau fight became the stuff of legend. It became, in practical political terms, the night Justin Trudeau was transformed into something else, something bigger than what he had been. 

Time went by. Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister. Patrick Brazeau got in a lot of trouble with the law.

And then, a half-decade later, Prime Minister Trudeau sat down with Rolling Stone magazine to talk about his big night. And he said this:

“I wanted someone who would be a good foil, and we stumbled upon the scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community. He fit the bill, and it was a very nice counterpoint. I saw it as the right kind of narrative, the right story to tell.”

Lots of indigenous leaders got very upset about that quote, and you can (hopefully) see why. Some called Trudeau arrogant. Some called him racist. When the controversy got too big to ignore, Trudeau expressed “regret” for what he’d said. 

But the damage had been done. Justin Trudeau had actually achieved the impossible: he’d rendered Patrick Brazeau a sympathetic figure. 

Now, Canada’s indigenous leaders are quite capable of speaking for themselves. They don’t need me or anyone else to do it. To them, it had been a kind of racist thing to say, or pretty close to it. 

But there was something else about that now-infamous quote that rankled. 
It sounded calculated, didn’t it? It sounded like he was admitting to a manipulation. It felt cynical. 

Now, politicians do calculated, manipulative, cynical things all the time – Hell, some would say that’s all they do.

But Trudeau’s big mistake, here – along with sounding like he was singling out an indigenous leader for a literal beating, his later soaring rhetoric about indigenous issues notwithstanding – was talking about strategy in the media. He was talking about how sausages are made, in effect.

Here’s a free tip, JT: don’t talk about how you make sausages. It never ends well. 

Average folks don’t care, Liberal apologists insisted. Or: he apologized, its over, nothing to see here, they claimed. Or: Nanos and the like remind us that Trudeau has got nothing to worry about: he’s still going to win the next election. 

Perhaps he will. Probably he will. As Donald Trump has shown the civilized world, running down minorities isn’t the impediment to high public office it used to be (or should be). You can do it and win. 

But I would simply say to my Liberal friends that our greatest occupational hazard is – always, always – arrogance.

Arrogance is what gets us beaten in elections. 

Although not, apparently, on that memorable night in March 2012, in a boxing ring.


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    Pedant says:

    “Ask Robert Stanfield, after that time he famously fumbled that football on the campaign trail”

    The particularly cruel thing about this was that the fumbled football was part of a back-and-forth during which Stanfield caught every one *except* the one that the media decided to display. Not that one’s ability to catch a damn football should be relevant anyway. The mindless voting masses frustrate me sometimes.

    Re: Trudeau. If he had said something like “we stumbled upon a scrappy tough black dude from Jane & Finch….he fit the bill….”, would we not consider it offensive? What’s the difference here? I will give Trudeau the benefit of the doubt and believe he simply misspoke, although I can’t see what point he was making by identifying Brazeau’s ethnicity.

    It goes without saying that if any Conservative anywhere had said anything close to this, the Liberals are their proxies in the media would be shrieking.

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      Ted H says:

      Actually, I am impressed that it was calculated, that JT was thinking several moves ahead already, that it wasn’t just an accidental PR windfall. It puts paid to the idea that he isn’t tough minded, he was obviously tougher minded than Harper and Mulcair in more ways than one.

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        Doug Brown says:

        ..or Gerry Butts was thinking several moves ahead

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        Pedant says:

        You’ve never criticized a Liberal in your life, have you Ted.

        I’ll repeat : If he had said something like “we stumbled upon a scrappy tough black dude from Jane & Finch…he fit the bill….”, would you not consider it offensive?

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    Mervyn Norton says:

    Trudeau’s intended “narrative” remains obscure, but the emphasis might be on a (Conservative appointed) “scrappy tough-guy senator,” making the “from an Indigenous community” more incidental than racist. But almost everyone seems to be lining up for an opportunity to be offended these days. The likeable Brazeau never complained about the experience.

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    BillBC says:

    “But I would simply say to my Liberal friends that our greatest occupational hazard is – always, always – arrogance.”

    True words, and good advice. I’ve been following federal politics since St. Laurent’s time, and your words are as true now as they were sixty years ago during the infamous pipeline debate. They should be engraved over the door at Liberal headquarters.

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    Kevin says:

    Stupid thing to say. But I think Mervyn above is right. It was a flip remark, meant to be a bit humorous, along the lines of whipping out CF-18s. Instead he ended up sounding like an asshole. I imagine back at the office they said “Stupid thing to say sir. But the more you try to explain the longer this gets dragged out. So just apologize and say nothing more. Now you’re not leaving this room until you write out 100 times “I must not say stupid things.”

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    Scott in Montreal says:

    Good piece, and good advice (for ALL political parties); the Libs always get brought down by arrogance on account of the fact they usually get it just about right in every other vital area, such as policy and organization.

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    MarkG says:

    Trudeau often stages things. And the fact is, Trudeau has boxed all his life and has a longer reach, so a novice like Brazeau never had a chance, even with his karate knowledge (boxing and karate are two different sports). Trudeau knew this. He also knew he could sell himself as the underdog and gain attention upon winning.

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