TORONTO — Justin Trudeau opened the floor up to questions from voters Thursday in his first town hall of the 2019 election campaign — and the first since pictures of himself dressed in brownface and blackface were publicly released.
The event in Saskatoon had been advertised two days prior and billed as a partisan rally, and the crowd was friendly. A girl kicked things off by asking what it felt like to be prime minister.
But, quickly, the biggest scandal that has rocked this election inserted itself into the discussion.
A young brown man noted the Liberal leader had dodged questions earlier in the day about how many times he’d worn blackface or brownface.
“I’ll make it easy, is it possible to round to the nearest five,” he asked. Only a handful of people clapped. Someone yelled out: “Yeah!”
Trudeau said he wasn’t going to “make light” of the situation.
“I think far too many people in this country face discrimination and intolerance on a daily basis, and what I did was inexcusable and wrong, and hurt a lot of people who considered me to be an ally and that is wrong and I am deeply, deeply sorry.”
On Wednesday, a photo published in Time magazine showed the Liberal leader dressed as a character from “Aladdin” at an event in 2001, wearing brown makeup all over his face, neck and arms. Trudeau was asked if there were more pictures and admitted he had worn “makeup” once before, during a high school talent show. A picture showing him in blackface was published by CTV.
But on Thursday, a third image of Trudeau, wearing blackface again, was released by Global News. Liberals say the image is from the early 1990s. Trudeau told journalists he didn’t want to give a “definitive” number to the amount of times he wore blackface or brownface because he had not recalled the third incident.
The next person Trudeau chose to hear from was a man donning a yellow vest. He thanked Trudeau showing up in Saskatoon and then leaned into the microphone and said: “Please do not apologize, you are a teacher. You were teaching young kids. I would want you for a teacher,” he said, to warm applause.
“And please, when they have this debate, let’s not go back [to] digging up bones, 15 years.”
People should be focused on what the government is “doing now and in the present,” he said.
Watch the moment from CBC Politics:
CTV reporter Glen McGregor said Kim Anderson isn’t a “yellow vester” — a movement linked to xenophobia — but a fuel distributor wearing a safety vest.
Trudeau responded that he appreciated the sentiment. “But, there was no excusing what I did and I’m sorry that I did it. But at the same time yes, we do need to focus on how we move forward as a country on many, many big issues and one of those issues is making sure your leaders don’t hurt people who already face discrimination and marginalization too much in their daily lives.”
He repeated that what he did was “unacceptable.”
David Pratt, a vice chief with the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, was the next person to speak. He started off by saying: “I want to tell you: I accept your apology.”
Trudeau fielded more than a dozen questions, including ones on the call to justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Indigenous children in government care, and Indigenous people in prisons.
The Liberal leader also answered questions on climate change, fires in the Amazon rainforest, small businesses tax cuts, support to scientists, protecting Canada’s fresh water reserves, compensation for those suffering of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, de-escalating tensions between Pakistan and India, as well as the high suicide rate among firemen and first responders.
Trudeau was also asked by a woman, who described herself as a single mother and award-winning photographer who had trouble making ends meet, if he could hire her as his personal photographer.
“Or, I would offer you a free photo session in exchange for payment of my accumulated government debt,” the smiling blond woman said. He laughed and declined the offer.