When disgraced Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau and Liberal party leader Justin Trudeau boxed in a charity match called Fight for the Cure in 2012, there was more at stake than raising funds for cancer research. The contenders had made a side bet: the loser would have to wear the hockey jersey of his opponent’s political party and also have his hair cut.
“We’re both known for our long hair on the Hill. Let’s say the loser gets a haircut,” Trudeau said of the bet, adding that Brazeau “resisted back a little bit, you know, pointing out that hair has a cultural significance for First Nations peoples, and I said ‘I know. That's why I proposed it. When a warrior cuts his hair, it's a sign of shame, so it's very apropos.’”
Trudeau is the one who suggested the loser get his haircut, even while he expressed a clear understanding of the spiritual significance and cosmology of a Native man's hair.
The night of the fight and Trudeau’s surprise win, I felt a deep sense of shame. The son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, a man who wrote the 1969 white paper on assimilating Indigenous people, publicly beat down a Native man on national television. Sun Media's pitbull, Ezra Levant, made it all the worse as the ringside commentator, a morbid pale-faced Don King-style promoter shouting and spitting his vitriol all over the live television feed.
After the loss, again live on television, Liberal MP Justin Trudeau cut off Senator Brazeau’s long hair in Parliament.
As a Cree man watching Brazeau and Trudeau hype their celebrity boxing match on Twitter, I was disgusted primarily at the self-destructive actions of Brazeau. As Harper’s “House Indian,” he represented how so many First Nations men have internalized colonialism and been broken. I was also disgusted at the thick machismo of both politicians beating their chests at each other.
Brazeau was appointed to the Canadian Senate in December of 2008 by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in an effort to put an Indigenous face on controversial government policies. It's no secret that Brazeau is no friend to his fellow Native, and much has been made of his notorious reputation and deplorable actions. But the powerful symbolism woven throughout the boxing match and its aftermath bears more consideration.
During the fight, Trudeau sported a temporary tattoo of the Katimavik logo on one arm, a symbol of Canada's future youth leaders. On the other he wears a more permanent piece of cultural appropriation, a tattoo of a thunderbird depicted in a west coast First Nations formline.
On one side, the anointed heir of Canada's elite, and on the other side Canada’s most assimilated Indian. And well, the rest is history. To me the symbolism represented not charity, but rather the manipulation and exploitation of one of our deepest and strictest spiritual protocols. To touch a Native man’s hair, and especially to cut it, has a profound impact on the individual.
Now the victor of this spectacle of Canada’s white patriarchy has his eyes on the most powerful seat in Canada's democracy, the office of the prime minister.
I have many questions. What possessed Trudeau to think, in a time of residential school apologies and moves towards reconciliation, that the public shaming of a First Nations man was appropriate or empowering? Was the fight some sort of rite of passage for an uncrowned prince?
Indeed the match is regarded by many commentators as a turning point in his political career, the moment at which Trudeau demonstrated the toughness required for the job he seeks.
The platform the Liberals are pushing is economically very similar to Harper’s. For example, Trudeau has claimed he is reconciling the environment and the economy and is ready to tackle climate change, yet he still supports tar sands expansion. I worry about how many Aboriginal peoples are blindly supporting a platform that will result in more expansion of the tar sands and other destructive extractive industries that disproportionately affect us.
Across the board this neoliberal vision can only result in further erosion and violation of Indigenous hereditary and treaty rights, furthering Canada’s termination agenda. It means more dispossession, marginalization, urbanization and coercion into profit-sharing for those attempting to assert their territorial jurisdiction by practicing their hunting and fishing rights and living on our sacred lands and waters.
I think about who Trudeau is at his core, and how he felt it was okay to target our weakest, to publicly beat him, then shame him in a way that by design would take away his spiritual power. Shortly after the fight the country witnessed the spectacular fall of Brazeau.
Allegations of sexual harassment and public drunkenness were already dogging the senator when he stepped into the ring, but to this day I wonder how much the symbolism of cutting off Brazeau’s hair, no less in the halls of the settler-colonial state of Canada, sent that pitiful man on his final spiral.
I leave you with this to think about: if this is what Trudeau did as an MP to one of our most damaged and weakest, what do you think he will he do if he is elected to the prime minister's office?
What will happen if he controls Canada’s military and policing apparatus and is faced by our strongest warriors and land defenders asserting Indigenous jurisdiction and sovereignty? What will he do faced with that fight, especially having supported Harper's anti-terror legislation Bill C-51? The recently passed bill allows legitimate expressions of sovereignty and jurisdictional assertion to be twisted by the police and courts, potentially criminalizing Indigenous people standing in defence of the climate, water, land and treaty rights and allowing them to be charged as terrorists. These are the things I will think about as I watch the election coverage late at night.