Trudeau facing brownface scandal


Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press

Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau reacts as he addresses a photo of himself from 2001, wearing “brownface,” in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Sept. 18, 2019.

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau is once again at the center of political controversy after images of him wearing blackface and brownface years ago surfaced over the past week. The controversy comes over a month after a parliamentary ethics watchdog found that he broke the law when he tried to influence his former justice minister’s handling of corruption investigation into mining giant SNC-Lavalin.

The initial photo was published Tuesday by Time Magazine. It shows Trudeau at an “Arabian Nights”-themed party in 2001 when he was teacher, in blackface and wearing a costume.

Ahead of Trudeau’s evening press conference aboard his campaign plane, NPD leader Jagmeet Singh, who is a Sikh, called Trudeau’s actions “troubling” and “insulting.”

“Who is the real Justin Trudeau? Is it the one behind closed doors? The one when the cameras are turned off no one sees — is that real Mr. Trudeau? Because more and more, that seems like it is.”

Trudeau officially launched his re-election campaign Sept. 11.

At a press conference aboard his campaign plane Wednesday, Trudeau told reporters he regretted his actions and he “should’ve known better.”

When asked by a reporter if there were any other instances of him wearing blackface, Trudeau said he wore it while singing “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” by Harry Belafonte at a high school talent show.

“This choice that I made many years ago, which was the wrong choice and one that I regret deeply, I need to — I am owning up to — and I’m going to focus on moving forward,” he said.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer called Trudeau’s actions “an act of open mockery and racism.”

“It was just as racist in 2001 as it was in 2019,” Scheer said.

The brownface revelations have received a mixed response in Canada, ranging from negative to indifferent, according to McGill University political science professor Daniel Béland. And in some parts of Canada, such as in Trudeau’s home riding, or district, of Papineau in Montreal, Quebec, he is still seeing lots of support.

“Interestingly, in francophone Quebec, reactions have been more muted on average, with more limited media coverage and a willingness to move on and accept Trudeau’s apologies, expressed by the Premier of the province, François Legault, and the leader of the Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, who said Trudeau was obviously not a racist,” Béland said in an email. “This difference of reaction between Quebec, where Trudeau is an MP, and the Rest of the Country (ROC) is similar to the one surrounding the SNC Lavalin affair that raged earlier this year in Canada.”

Thursday in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Trudeau hit similarly apologetic notes. But this time, he was addressing a third instance of him wearing blackface that had come to light — a video obtained by Canadian outlet Global News that showed him in the ‘90s when he was a teenager, clad in a white t-shirt and black faceprint, making faces and sticking his tongue out.

Global News said it obtained the video from “a source within the Conservative Party of Canada” and then verified it with Liberal party officials.

“When I think of the conversations I had with my kids this morning, I also recognize that there are far too many Canadians who this morning had to explain to their kids what those pictures were of their prime minister,” he said.

Jennifer Quaid, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, reiterated what she told the The DePaulia in March in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal: For many Canadian voters, the economy is still likely to be the most important issue on Oct. 21.

“I continue to believe that voters will be most swayed by the party that best speaks to their economic insecurities and interests,” she said. “That said, many voters are dissatisfied with all parties so we’ll see who turns out to vote and what compromise they make on the ballot sheet. Trudeau has a tarnished reputation but his party is still stacked with good candidates. The opposition party leaders have not captured the imagination of the public, even though there is clearly an appetite for alternatives.”

At a town hall in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Thursday, Trudeau stood before an audience of supporters and said he was sorry once again, with several people in attendance telling him they accepted his apology.

Key campaign issues for all parties include marketing Canada’s oil reserves — the third largest in the world — the Trudeau government’s carbon tax, immigration, jobs and benefits for families including the Liberals’ much-touted tax-free child benefit program.

In terms of reputation, Béland said, Trudeau’s image has been undermined at home and abroad.

“At the same time, the impact of these pictures and video on voting intentions remain unknown,” he said. He said the next round of polls will hint at how Trudeau and the Liberals will fare come election time.

Polls released on Saturday showed a close race between Liberals and Conservatives, with Trudeau losing some support in the wake of the scandal.

Quaid said the outlook for the Liberals is not a negative one.

“We are all past the ‘sunny days’ slogans, but my intuition says this is still the Liberals’ election to lose,” she said. “If they avoid too many mishaps and Trudeau performs in the debates, which is expected, I doubt the opposition will prevail. The majority might be smaller but the Liberals are still in the best position to form the next government.”