OTTAWA—After the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992, Bob Rae got booed by thousands of rowdy fans during the team’s championship celebration. So when the Jays clinched the title again the following year, Ontario’s NDP premier went back with a plan.
“At that point, I was not the most revered figure in public life,” Rae recalled over the phone on Friday.
“I was reflecting on what to do, because I’d been invited by the team to come, like all the politicians,” Rae said. “I have a very good friend… He says, ‘Get your kids to make a sign’.”
Rae brought it with him to the SkyDome that October day in 1993, and when the time came for him to stand and wave as an attending dignitary, he heard those familiar boos bubbling up from the crowd in the stadium. Then he held up the sign and — wouldn’t you know it — the boos morphed into hoots and hollers of approval.
The sign said: “No speech today. Hooray for the Jays.”
Rae chuckled at the memory. “I’d managed to figure out a way to get people to cheer,” he said.
Politicians may want to take heed of that feat, as the nation is once again gripped in the collective exuberance of a momentous victory. The Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship for the first time in franchise history Thursday night.
Throughout the playoffs, politicians of all stripes have made shows of support for the Raptors. Some have worn jerseys on Parliament Hill, while Toronto Mayor John Tory can’t seem to take off his gold and black Raptor claw blazer.
Even more had climbed aboard the bandwagon online. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer have posted photos of themselves watching games with their families. After Thursday’s championship-clinching Game 6, dozens of MPs posted messages of congratulations, their tweets adorned with requisite hashtags like #WeTheNorth and #WeTheChamps.
But while many would expect their political leaders — as representatives of the people and figureheads of our communities — to champion the champions in the public arena, there’s also a risk that, in doing so, politicians open themselves up to ridicule or criticism that they’re trying to latch onto the euphoria for their own gain.
“It’s littered with foolishness and embarrassment,” said Moshe Lander, a professor at Concordia University. “They want to be of the people, with the people, and the fact is they’re just not.”
Mélanie Richer, the federal NDP’s director of communications, said there are risks when sending your party leader to a major sporting event or celebration. She remembers the 2015 election, when NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair attended a Jays game during the team’s playoff run. It was one of the games they lost with a prominent politician in attendance, leading to the half-serious superstitious talk of a politicians’ curse.
Current NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, however, has deep roots in the Toronto area, and is a bona fide Raptors fan, Richer said. A friend invited him to join him for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, when the Raptors buried the Milwaukee Bucks and advanced to the championship round. The team also asked him to attend Monday’s victory parade in Toronto, and Singh plans to be there in the “special guest section” along the route, Richer said.
“Jagmeet is well known, so we’re always mindful about sending him places and taking away from what’s happening,” she said. “But something like the parade… that’s a great moment to just celebrate with people, this super-cool win.”
Ontario Premier Doug Ford seemed to make a similar case Friday when he told Citytv that he wants to join the celebration but would avoid taking part in the parade on Monday because “This is all about the Raptors.” Scheer, the federal Tory leader, also plans to watch the parade but won’t try to march in it, his office said Friday.
Meanwhile, speculation is whirling about whether the Raptors will take part in the ritual of visiting the White House as this year’s NBA champions. Under President Donald Trump, some athletes have refused to take part in the American tradition, but for Canada’s NBA squad there’s the added question of whether they’ll even be invited since they hail from a city outside the U.S.
Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson posted on social media Friday that the Raptors should just come to Canada’s capital instead.
“Forget the White House for a victory lap,” Watson wrote. “Come to Ottawa and Parliament Hill so Canada can congratulate you!”
Trudeau’s office would not confirm Friday whether the prime minister will invite the Raptors, but earlier this week, one of his spokespeople said they would be honoured to do so.
Having been through all this before, Rae said his advice for today’s political leaders would be to steer clear of the celebrations unless absolutely required.
“The important thing for politicians to remember at these occasions is it’s not about them,” he said. “It’s about the team.”
Alex Ballingall is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @aballinga