This article originally appeared in the May 2013 print edition of OTTAWA magazine.
Two years on and Patrick Brazeau is still making headlines. Just this past week, a Quebec judge granted him an absolute discharge on charges of assault and cocaine possession. In response, Brazeau declared his intention to return to the Senate “as soon as possible.”
Here, a look back at MARK BOURRIE‘s article on the perennial newsmaker.
Patrick Brazeau rose in the Senate, looked around the chamber, thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for appointing him, and began telling his life story: “I was born a non-status Indian, the son of an Algonquin Indian married to a non-Aboriginal woman. I was raised in Maniwaki, Quebec. In the eyes of the non-Aboriginal population, I was too much of an Indian. Yet in the eyes of the Indian population, I wasn’t Indian enough because of the fact that I lived off-reserve.
“Following the passage of Bill C-31 in 1985, my brothers and I regained status. Suddenly, and with the stroke of a pen, I became — at least in the eyes of the federal government — an Indian. Where is the justice in having a colonial, discriminatory, and racist piece of legislation, such as the Indian Act, prescribe who is and isn’t an Indian?
“It was there and then that I determined that something needed to be done to change this — and I wasn’t about to wait for someone else to make the first step. If change was going to come, it was going to have to begin and end with me.”
On the same day in February 2009 that Brazeau made his maiden speech in the Senate, the Toronto Star carried a story reporting that the youngest person appointed to the Senate since the days of Sir John A. Macdonald was behind on his $100-a-month child support payments. And there would be much more to come. The “poor Algonquin boy makes good” story never really caught on. Instead, Patrick Brazeau’s first years in the Senate were defined by small scandals and embarrassments — minor disgraces that were eclipsed this past February, when the senator was forced by his Senate colleagues to take a leave of absence after being charged with assault and sexual assault.
Patrick Brazeau was born in 1974 in Maniwaki, Quebec, just outside the Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg reserve. His paternal grandmother was a full-blooded Algonquin who married a white man and, because of the laws of the time, lost her Indian status. Her son (Brazeau’s father) operated a grocery store in Maniwaki, and a young Patrick Brazeau grew up living above the Dépanneur Brazeau. Brazeau’s father wasn’t interested in reserve life, even if he had been allowed to live there. His mother, Huguette, was French-Canadian (she passed away in 2004).
While Maniwaki is less than two hours from Ottawa, it’s a wilderness town. The little main street has shops that serve the locals and cater to tourists, mostly wilderness roamers and pickerel fishermen. The town has deep divisions: whites versus Algonquins, French versus the much-reduced English-speaking population. The local lumber industry died during Brazeau’s youth — the last log rafts were floated down the Gatineau River when he was a teenager.
Brazeau grew up to be strong, athletic, and good-looking. Unlike many Aboriginals his age, he graduated from both high school and CEGEP. Then he bounced around, first trying to make it as a male model, then joining the naval reserves. When he was 20, Brazeau had a son with Dena Buckshot, who lived in Gatineau. She broke up with him soon after discovering she was pregnant. The next few years were the years of drifting before Brazeau ended up in law school at the University of Ottawa.
Then, in 2001, a young Brazeau scored a job as a summer student with the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples (CAP). He quickly became enmeshed in the vicious world of Aboriginal politics where many First Nations leaders spend as much time and energy fighting with each other as they do taking on the government.
CAP was founded in 1971, mainly to represent Aboriginal people living off reserves. The organization has always argued that these people are ignored by the First Nations leadership, who invariably come from reserves. Through the years, the number of First Nations people living in cities has grown so much that in this decade, more than half of the nearly 1,173,000 people who identified themselves as Aboriginal in the 2006 Census reside in urban areas (CAP says 60 to 80 percent of people live off-reserve). While the definition of “Aboriginal” is being fought over in the courts, Brazeau has stated in interviews that the federal government spends $8 per person on people living on reserves for every $1 it spends on Natives who don’t. Aboriginal people living in cities, especially in western Canada, have a tough time. Jobs are scarce, gangs in the cities recruit young Natives, and alcoholism and drug abuse are epidemic, provoking a racial backlash.
Soon after joining CAP, Brazeau resolved to devote himself full-time to acting as a spokesman for urban Natives. He was outspoken and he was ambitious. In 2004, Brazeau was elected national vice-chief of CAP, and in 2006 120 delegates of the organization unanimously chose him as national chief during their annual general assembly. Still, though Brazeau was obviously popular within CAP, the organization itself was — and continues to be — shunned by the leadership of most mainstream First Nations groups, which attacked the young leader.
In 2007, Brazeau hit the road on a 13-city tour to talk about human rights and encourage Aboriginal people to vote in elections. In Regina, he told a town hall meeting that Indians living off reserves are ignored both by their First Nations leaders and by the government. “First Nations people are the only one people who don’t have mobility rights in Canada, which means once an individual leaves the reserve, their rights stay at the boundary of the reserve. Traditionally, reserve boundaries are not the traditional boundaries of our people,” he said.
Brazeau’s main political goal was to amalgamate and recreate the original tribes, such as the Algonquin, Cree, and Mohawk, and treat them, rather than the 600-plus Native reserves and villages, as nations. Money would be funnelled to the nations rather than to the hundreds of bands. The federal government would deal with about 75 Native political entities rather than 600. It was an idea raised by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996 but since ignored by both the federal government and the mainstream Aboriginal leadership.
In 2008, Patrick Brazeau was the only chief to publicly throw his support behind the federal Conservative Party. Political insiders could see an appointment in the making. After the party’s October election win, Brazeau was one of the few Aboriginal leaders invited by the Conservative government into the Senate for its first Throne Speech. He was appointed to the Senate that December, the 15th Aboriginal to sit in the upper chamber and the youngest since the late 1800s. If he can hang on to his seat, Brazeau could remain in the Senate until he turns 75 in 2049.
Within weeks of his appointment, pundits were already speculating about whether the Harper brain trust had seriously vetted the new senator. There was enough potential dirt, just in the newspapers, to cast doubt on the wisdom of putting Brazeau in the Senate. A female CAP employee had filed a complaint in March 2008, saying Brazeau sexually harassed her. CAP’s board had hired a mediation firm to investigate the allegation, and it concluded that Brazeau did not violate CAP’s policies. The woman then took her complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, where it lay when Harper appointed Brazeau. (The former staffer abandoned the case in December 2012.)That same year, another female employee filed a grievance against Brazeau while he was still national chief, as well as with the CAP board, alleging Brazeau and senior staff created a work atmosphere where sexual exploitation and heavy drinking by CAP’s top people were common.
Dissatisfaction with CAP’s Ottawa office spread to the regions. Brazeau and the CAP board of directors suspended the entire Manitoba wing in November 2008, just a few days before the provincial board member, Walter Menard, said he would try to focus the next CAP annual meeting on those allegations of sexual harassment and drunkenness and hold Brazeau and his senior staff accountable. (A Globe and Mail article at the time said board members accused Menard of “sour grapes,” noting that his Manitoba affiliate was suspended for not complying with certain bylaws. Menard claimed the CAP board was trying to keep him quiet.)
That same month, Brazeau was re-elected CAP national chief despite angry objections from CAP provincial officials in British Columbia and Saskatchewan who complained about the way Menard had been treated by Brazeau and his supporters on the CAP board. In December 2008, Brazeau was called to the Senate, and controversy continued to swirl as he hung on to the CAP job and its $100,000 annual salary while pulling down $130,000 plus expenses as a senator. Very soon after, in January 2009, Brazeau resigned from CAP. He released a statement at the time explaining his decision, saying, “I am eager to fully embrace my new role and to contribute to the important work of the Senate of Canada. I am committed to continuing my advancement of Aboriginal issues and opportunities across Canada.” Kevin Daniels of Saskatchewan, who had been elected national vice-chief a couple of months earlier, took over as chief.
Meanwhile, as Brazeau settled into the Red Chamber, his enemies in First Nations politics made sure the media were duly informed about his various troubles. The prime minister’s director of communications at the time was Kory Teneycke. He answered the accusation of sexual harassment with the statement that Prime Minister Harper knew about it, saying “a rigorous background check” had revealed the complaint but he was “proud” to appoint Brazeau, since there had been no finding of misconduct.
The federal government launched its own media campaign in support of the embattled senator, with Conservative senator David Tkachuk writing a letter to the editor of the Saskatoon Star Phoenix on January 21, 2009: “Thirty years of traditional First Nations leadership has failed to improve the lot of Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples. It is time for a fresh point of view, instead of the same old stagnant debate. The Senate provides an ideal venue for Brazeau to present and champion his views and also to have them challenged.”
The CAP problems might well have blown over and Brazeau could have quietly collected his Senate pay and perhaps made a new career as a spokesman for those urban Aboriginals he had once tried to represent. But instead, he became a boisterous Tory partisan — drawing fire for grandstanding and ill-conceived personal attacks on his political opponents. The real scrutiny began on March 31, 2012, when Brazeau tried to do something that only one Tory, Joe Clark, has ever done: beat a Trudeau. The scene was a charity boxing match to raise money for cancer research. Brazeau has a second-degree black belt in karate. He was 3-1 favourite to win the “Thrilla on the Hilla” against Justin Trudeau. The focus of the event should have been the fight against cancer: Trudeau had lost his father to cancer in 2000, while Brazeau’s mother died of the disease in 2004.
Brazeau told Yvonne Marton of the Toronto Star: “She [his mother] was diagnosed in 2003, so she had less than a year after she got diagnosed, and it wasn’t easy, obviously. When she was sick, I did spend a lot of time with her in the hospital, and I was even there when she passed away. So even though she lost her battle with cancer, I try to contribute anything that I can to continue the fight in her good name and any others who are stricken with this horrible disease.
“You know, I saw somebody essentially on a hospital bed pleading for mercy with her God because she, she … she had a rough time. And seeing your mom or any parent or anybody go through that stuff, you know, you kind of sit back and think, yes, this is a boxing match. Certainly in the back of my mind, I’ll be thinking of my mom quite a bit.”
But though Brazeau’s intentions seemed solid, the fight quickly became a partisan joke. While the event had raised an impressive $230,000 for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation, the bout was framed as wiry little Trudeau versus a muscle-bound Tory blowhard. The ballroom at the Hampton Hotel was sold out, with seats going for $250 and tables selling for up to $3,000. When it came down to it, neither fighter showed any boxing style. Trudeau was in better shape, was faster, and had more stamina. Brazeau blew all his strength in the first round, trying to use his size and reach to take Trudeau down. In the second round, Brazeau was already tired and Trudeau took control of the fight. It was stopped in the third round, with the referee awarding the fight to Trudeau on a technical knockout. Brazeau, bleeding, congratulated Trudeau on a good fight and asked for a rematch.
The day after the fight, Brazeau, flashing a big shiner under his right eye, said the pain of having to wear a Liberal jersey for a week was far worse than anything Trudeau inflicted on him. “A bet is a bet, and I’m a man of my word,” Brazeau said on CTV’s Question Period. “It’ll be a long week in terms of some of the jokes I’ll have to take, but my skin is quite thick.” Part of the bet was that Brazeau would cut his hair. He did that the Monday after the fight. (Hair, in official Ottawa, has become a very big deal.)
It was only a few months later that Brazeau came under fire for ill-judged remarks in the “Twitterverse,” a place much frequented by the national media. Reacting to a June 26 story by Canadian Press reporter Jennifer Ditchburn that accused Brazeau of having the worst attendance record in the Senate, Brazeau tweeted: “While U smile Jen others suffer. Change the D to a B in your last name and we’re even! Don’t mean it but needs saying.” Though the attendance issue was lost in the media storm that followed, Ditchburn had a point. Brazeau missed 25 percent of the 72 sitting days between June 2011 and April 2012 and by the end of that period was four days away from being fined by the Senate for poor attendance. On Twitter, Ditchburn underlined how rash Brazeau had been with a composed tweet: “Dear Senator: Many a person has made fun of my name and [the] word ‘Bitch.’ But never a Canadian senator. That’s a first.”
Brazeau apologized on Twitter for his comments, saying he had made them “because of my personal circumstance regarding your story.” He added in a second tweet: “I’m a hard worker and take my position seriously but personal issues always comes 1st. Ppl are sometimes in need. Sorry!” Still, the senator soon took a breather from Twitter, closing his account for a few weeks.
Stephen Harper prefers his MPs and senators to be cautious, even mute, around the press, but Brazeau, who had rarely had good publicity since being named a senator, continued to maintain and encourage his connections with the media, even going so far as to play the villain in a This Hour Has 22 Minutes sketch this past December.
But when the Idle No More protests gathered steam in the winter of 2012-2013 and Native issues hit the national agenda, there was no place for Brazeau’s voice. He was not consulted by the movement, either as a spokesman for urban Natives or as a bridge between the government and the First Nations leadership.
Brazeau tried to make his presence felt, attempting to visit Attawapiskat chief Theresa Spence on Christmas Eve to try to talk her into ending her liquids-only fast. (Launched in early December from a teepee on Victoria Island in the shadow of Parliament Hill, Spence’s protest had garnered international media attention and made her a symbol to some Idle No More supporters.) But when Brazeau was turned away from Victoria Island, he questioned Spence’s commitment to meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Governor General David Johnston, saying she seemed to have lots of time to meet with prominent New Democrats and Liberals, including Paul Dewar, Bob Rae, and Justin Trudeau.
Later, Brazeau got into another Twitter spat when Native leaders held a press conference on Parliament Hill just after Christmas to show support for Spence and to demand meetings with the governor general and the prime minister. “And that is the typical ‘traditional’ angry, victim speech I’ve heard all my life, which is why I got involved in politics,” Brazeau tweeted in the aftermath of the event. Whoever was handling Spence’s Twitter account called Brazeau a “typical colonized Indian asshole.” And University of Victoria professor Taiaiake Alfred, a Mohawk who served in the marines before turning to academics, weighed in with a tweet calling Brazeau a “fucking goof.”
By this point, Senator Brazeau had been sidelined, reduced to making jokes about Spence’s supposed failure to slim down during her protest. And, much more seriously, Senate Government Leader Marjory LeBreton had asked a committee to look into his billing for the Senate’s $20,000 annual housing allowance, after he was accused by the CTV Television Network of using a family member’s address in Maniwaki as his home and claiming his rented house in Gatineau as his temporary residence in Ottawa. But even this transgression could be fixed, either by showing that Brazeau did, indeed, follow the rules or by admitting the billing was wrong and paying the money back.
But on February 7, the housing-allowance issue was pushed to the back burner as a new scandal erupted. Police answered a domestic-violence call from a Gatineau house and arrested Brazeau. He was arraigned the next day on charges of assault and sexual assault, released on $1,000 bail, kicked out of the Tory caucus and, soon afterward, forced by the Senate to take a paid leave of absence.
Chances are, though, that Brazeau will be back in the Senate. Senators must be absent for more than a year before they can be expelled for poor attendance. And if Brazeau is convicted, the charges laid against him likely won’t keep him behind bars that long, if he’s jailed at all.
In his maiden speech to the Senate, made almost exactly four years before he was escorted out of the Red Chamber, Brazeau noted that “in whatever game I am chosen to play, I aim to win.” He must be playing a long game. So far, whatever strategy Brazeau has for winning has been very artfully concealed.