TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s carefully crafted public image as a global leader in inclusiveness and multiculturalism was swiftly shattered Wednesday night when a racist photo of him smiling in brownface and a turban went public.
The 2001 photo from a prestigious Vancouver private school yearbook, shows Trudeau, then a teacher, with his hands and face painted brown at an “Arabian Nights” themed party. In short order, a second damaging image surfaced: one of Trudeau performing “Day-O” in a high school talent show wearing an afro and blackface.
Then within 12 hours, a video surfaced of Trudeau, again in blackface. The grainy footage from the early 1990s shows Trudeau thrusting his arms in the air while wearing makeup to darken his face and arms, confirmed to be authentic by his campaign.
“It is something absolutely unacceptable to do,” said Trudeau on Thursday in his second apology. “It is something that people who live with the kind of discrimination that far too many people do — because of the color of their skin or their history, or their origins, or their language or their religion — face on a regular basis.
“And I didn’t see that from the layers of privilege that I have and for that I’m deeply sorry.”
The unexpected bombshell threw Canada, and its upcoming federal election, into the spotlight, shocking people around the world and challenging Trudeau’s famous reputation as an inclusive, progressive leader.
“I think one of the ways the shock factor has increased in all of this is Canada has constructed itself both nationally and individually on the premise of the good Canadian, the good Canada,” said Kathy Hogarth, a Black Canadian, anti-racism activist and professor at the University of Waterloo.
“When these things happen, it really flies in the face and betrays that notion.”
Political strategist Zain Velji, a Muslim, said seeing the racist photos of Trudeau “doesn’t compute.”
“The man spent so much of his political capital on diversity and inclusiveness and people are having a tough time reconciling with it,” Velji said. “Why didn’t he come out and talk about it earlier?”
This is the first time in a Canadian election a racialized person has vied for the prime minister’s job.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the left-wing New Democractic Party and son of Punjabi immigrants, gave a heartfelt statement Wednesday about the photos of Trudeau.
“I want to talk to all of the kids out there, all the folks who lived this and are now grown up and still feeling the pain of racism,” he said. “I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada. You might feel like giving up on yourselves. I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved.”
Stories about the photos were placed prominently on the homepages of The New York Times, BBC, Al Jazeera and The Guardian on Thursday. The front page of the Washington Post’s website featured an opinion piece with the headline “Canada’s left should dump Justin Trudeau.”
The New York Times described the “compounding scandal” as a “major blow” to the image of Trudeau that he and his team meticulously shaped as a “glittering spokesman for the world’s beleaguered liberals.”
Since coming to power in 2015, Trudeau has been a favourite subject of international media, especially in the U.S. where the image of him contrasts well against the polarizing President Donald Trump.
Just one month after he was sworn in as prime minister, Trudeau and his wife were photographed for Vogue. Months later, he was profiled on “60 Minutes.” And in 2017, Rolling Stone magazine famously put the prime minister on the cover, lauded him as “the North Star” and asked, “Why can’t he be our president?”
Former U.S. President Barack Obama even joked, as he was leaving office, that Trudeau was taking over as the handsome, charming politician of “the future.”
Trudeau’s father, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, helped solidify Canada’s identity as a diverse society in 1971 by declaring the federal government would adopt a multicultural policy. Trudeau himself has welcomed almost 60,000 Syrian refugees since 2015. He apologized for how the government has treated Indigenous people and the LGBTQ community. He also made his cabinet gender equal “because it’s 2015,” he stated in a widely quoted moment shortly after he took office.
But he has been criticized for not taking more meaningful actions with respect to Indigenous rights and to combat racism, among other issues.
“Sometimes his words didn’t add up to his actions, and a number of policies he heralded were pushed aside, or were quite watered down,” said Brittany Andrew-Amofah, senior policy analyst at the Broadbent Institute, a progressive research organization. She pointed to him falling short on climate change action and not issuing expungements for cannabis convictions, which largely affects marginalized communities.
The racism scandal could ruin Trudeau’s chances at re-election (he’s refused to step down as Liberal leader). With a month left in the election campaign, he is running in a tight race against Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. One poll from early September gave the Conservatives a two-point lead.
“Sometimes his words didn’t add up to his actions, and a number of policies he heralded were pushed aside, or were quite watered down.”
Until February, it looked like Trudeau would easily win a majority government for a second term, but his popularity took a slide after the SNC-Lavalin controversy began dominating headlines in the Canadian media. One of Trudeau’s most respected ministers, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould, said the Prime Minister’s Office pressured her to help the corporation avoid prosecution for corruption charges.
Wilson-Raybould, who was the highest-ranking Indigenous woman in a Canadian government ever, was eventually booted from the Liberal party — another indication that Trudeau’s actions differ from his words of inclusivity.
“He’s shown a pattern of troubling behaviour towards those who are racially different,” said Hogarth. “How he treated Jody Wilson-Raybold raised red flags for me.”
The former attorney general herself weighed in on the racist photo scandal Wednesday.
“It’s awful,” Wilson-Raybould said. “When I first saw it, I didn’t think it was real...
“I’m incredibly proud to be an Indigenous person in this country, one that has experienced racism and discrimination. It’s completely unacceptable for anybody in a position of authority and power to do something like that.”
Brown and blackface are traditionally worn by white people, often in theatre, “to simplify and demean people of color,” said Hogarth, the University of Waterloo professor.
“(It) harkens back to a history of racism and an Orientalist mythology, which is unacceptable,” said the National Council of Canadian Muslims executive director Mustafa Farooq in a statement.
Blackface became a popular, racist form of entertainment in the U.S. in the 1820s, but has a long history in Canada, too. They are countries founded on slavery and the erasure of Indigenous people, with white people empowered through politics, the economy and social stratification, said Andrew-Amofah.
In this environment, “blackface rose in popularity to portray Black people as less than,” she said.
McGill University has tracked almost 350 instances of blackface in Canada between 1841 to 2016 — from the composer of the Canadian national anthem traveling as a blackface minstrel in the mid-1800s, to “Black Pete” being welcomed at an Edmonton bakery just a couple of years ago.
Before the scandal, the vast majority of Canadians believed Trudeau was more tolerant, compassionate and influential compared to Scheer, his main political opponent, according to a recent poll.
“He (Trudeau) had built up a tremendous base and foundation of goodwill,” said Shachi Kurl, executive director of the polling firm Angus Reid Institute. “The question becomes does that deep base enable him to survive this, or is it more damaging?”
“He had built up a tremendous base and foundation of goodwill.”
This scandal could devastate the support Trudeau draws from progressive voters, whom he rallied under the Liberal’s “big red tent” last election, leading to his unexpected victory, she said.
His promises of “sunny ways” and change compelled them to get out and vote.
“Nothing in the last 24 hours is helpful on either fronts,” Kurl said. “If the progressive left cannot bring themselves to forgive Justin Trudeau, what happens? Do they drift away, and stay home?”
Voters might be less critical, however, in Quebec — a predominantly French-speaking, vote-rich province that has been consistently influential in determining the outcome of Canadian elections.
Already, the scandal has garnered less media attention there. Three Quebec newspapers in its provincial capital covered their Thursday editions with stories about a Céline Dion concert. A fourth featured a photo of new elephants at the zoo.
The province’s leader, Premier François Legault, said that the costumes were a bad choice when he was speaking in English but would not repeat that comment in French, according to CBC News reporter Jay Turnbull.
Premier Legault said that the prime minister has apologized, “so I think we have to talk about something else now.”
Trudeau has been criticized for not speaking out more strongly against Quebec’s popular but controversial law, which bans anyone who wears a religious symbol, like a hijab, kippah or turban, from public sector jobs.
He has said he opposes the law, but he’s also said his federal government won’t do anything to stop it. More than 60% of Quebecers support the “secularism” law, polls have found. And Trudeau enjoys higher levels of support in Quebec than he does in other areas of the country.
Canadians now have to weigh his racist actions of the past against his record as prime minister, said Velji, the political strategist. “Do these photos and video define him and everything else as BS, or has he shown enough with his record we can chalk it up to youthful ignorance?”