Every political hack remembers where they were when the first black man was elected president of the United States, when Nelson Mandela was freed from a South African prison or (more recently, depressingly) when Donald Trump entered the White House. Those were big political events.
Some of us even remember where we were when Liberal MP Justin Trudeau had a boxing match with Conservative Sen. Patrick Brazeau.
On that night, March 31, 2012, I 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, 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, I was friendly with the Montreal MP and 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 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 a 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. Robert Stanfield famously fumbled a football on the campaign trail and the loser tag, once attached, was virtually impossible to remove.
Two, it was swinging at the wrong target. The 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 didn’t 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.
None of that happened, of course. We all know what happened: 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 Trudeau was transformed into something else, something bigger than what he had been.
Time went by. Trudeau became prime minister. 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 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. Trudeau had achieved the impossible: he’d rendered Brazeau a sympathetic figure.
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. It sounded like he was admitting to a manipulation. It felt cynical.
Politicians do calculated, manipulative, cynical things all the time. 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: don’t talk about how you make sausages. It never ends well.
Average folks don’t care, Liberal apologists insisted. Or, they claimed, he apologized, it’s over, nothing to see here. Or pollsters remind us Trudeau has 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 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 – arrogance.
Arrogance is what gets us beaten in elections.
Although not, apparently, on that memorable night in March 2012 in a boxing ring.
Warren Kinsella is a Canadian journalist, political adviser and commentator.