Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has issued a profusion of heart-felt apologies in the past few days. In the run-up to the October 21 federal election, he has shifted to contrite mode as he campaigns for reelection.
A few days ago, Time magazine published a scoop that greatly embarrassed Trudeau, the son of a former prime minister and, until recently, the golden boy of Canadian politics. Canadians learned that Trudeau, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive, had engaged in a less than subtle form of racism by having worn brownface and blackface as a student and teacher. In effect, he thoughtlessly perpetuated a despicable racist practice that had gone out of style decades ago.
Time‘s disclosure was unsettling because Trudeau has presented himself as a compassionate, caring and sensitive politician who is attuned to the times and dedicated to upholding Canada’s status as a diverse and tolerant democracy. Now that these troubling photographs of Trudeau have upended his carefully cultivated image, Canadians may well have to reassess their opinion of him. More seriously, they will have to decide whether to cast their ballots for Trudeau and the Liberal Party in the forthcoming election.
The incriminating photograph in Time originally appeared in a school yearbook in 2001. It showed a jaunty Trudeau dressed up as Aladdin at an Arabian Nights fundraising event at West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver. Trudeau, then 29, was employed as a teacher at the school. Literally hours after the appearance of this photograph, a video and yet another photograph of Trudeau in blackface, taken in the 1990s, surfaced.
It goes without saying that Trudeau made an egregious mistake. He was obviously oblivious to the fact that blackface is beyond the pale. It’s a disturbing relic from Jim Crow America, a dark era that lasted approximately from the end of the U.S. Civil War in 1865 to the mid-1960s. During this period, when racial discrimination and segregation were commonplace in American society, particularly in the Southern states, white performers in minstrel shows would blacken their faces and pretend to be African Americans.
Their patronizing and demeaning performances were disgusting caricatures. It’s no secret that the phenomenon of blackface normalized racial stereotypes in the United States and led to the further marginalization and oppression of African Americans.
Evidently shocked by his behavior as a young man, Trudeau made a litany of apologies. “I shouldn’t have done that,” he said in his very first statement on September 18. “I should have known better, but I didn’t and I’m really sorry.”
Two days later, in Toronto, Trudeau said, “I know there are Canadians, many, many Canadians, that I have deeply hurt with the choices I made. I am going to work very hard to demonstrate that as an individual I will continue to stand against intolerance and racism.”
I suspect that Trudeau is sincere. He does not want these images to define him or his party, whose path to victory in the October election is far from assured.
Since his ascent as prime minister in 2015, he has hewed to a liberal agenda of “sunny ways.” He welcomed refugees from Syria. He supported a parliamentary study of Islamophobia. He launched an anti-racism strategy. He funded programs that promote diversity and gender equality. And he apologized for a callous and antisemitic Canadian government decision in 1939 to turn away the St. Louis, a German passenger ship filled with Jewish refugees desperate to find a safe haven in Canada.
The images of him in brownface and blackface certainly have had a chilling effect. In short, they have tarnished his reputation. But even before these photographs turned up in the media, Trudeau had been unmasked as just another calculating, power-hungry politician.
Last month, Mario Dion, the conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, reported that Trudeau had violated the Conflict of Interest Act by flagrantly attempting to influence the then justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, in the seamy SNC-Lavalin affair.
Trudeau smartly took full responsibility for his intervention in the case, but it revealed him as a politician who will do virtually anything to advance the electoral interests of the Liberal Party.
It will not be surprising if some Canadians think twice before voting for him again come October.