This is probably not how Justin Trudeau expected his reelection campaign to go. The Canadian prime minister, who has achieved international renown as a champion of diversity and inclusion, has now spent multiple days apologizing for his own racist actions as images surfaced of his repeated use of brownface and blackface.
On Wednesday, Time magazine broke the story that Trudeau wore brownface at an Arabian Nights–themed party in 2001 at the elite private school where he was a teacher. Trudeau, then 29, is seen in a photo grinning through dark face makeup with a turban on his head.
Speaking to campaign reporters shortly after publication of the photo, Trudeau apologized, saying he “didn’t consider it racist at the time.” He also admitted to an incident in high school when he wore blackface, adding the rather bizarre explanation that he has always been “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.” Trudeau apologized again on Thursday after Global News published video of a third incident; he said he didn’t know how many other times he had worn blackface.
The blackface scandal is the most explosive Canadian election story in living memory, certain to dominate the remaining weeks of the campaign before voters cast their ballots on Oct. 21. Trudeau has vowed to continue leading his Liberal Party, even as the revelations have irrevocably damaged his carefully crafted political brand. Trudeau, after all, rode into office four years ago promising to be a new kind of politician, sprinkling his speeches with progressive talking points about gender equity, racial diversity and social justice—even as his policies have always veered toward cautious, status-quo centrism. An eager international press was quick to label Trudeau an antidote to Trumpism, a real-life Disney Prince, a “woke bae“ for our troubled times.
Even this week, as he stood before the cameras detailing his own history of racial mockery, Trudeau knew all the right words to use, referring to the “layers of privilege” that had blinded him to the impact of his actions. But whatever spell Trudeau had once cast on his fans now appears shattered, and more progressive incantations are unlikely to restore the magic. The blackface scandal has shown that Trudeau’s social justice agenda was ultimately an empty performance, another costume he donned when it was convenient but didn’t require him to live up to his professed principles.
This episode has also exposed how unprepared many Canadian voters and institutions are to reckon with issues of racism and intolerance. Before news of Trudeau’s “costume enthusiasm” broke, the most indelible image of the campaign may have been that of a cabin full of journalists aboard the prime minister’s plane on Day 1 of the campaign. The photo, shared by a Toronto Star reporter on Twitter, shows what appears to be an all-white press pack. It drew mockery as well as exasperation from many journalists of color who have long complained about the overwhelming whiteness of the country’s media. “Accurate snapshot of Canadian newsrooms,” tweeted journalism professor Asmaa Malik. It’s no wonder that when the most powerful person in the country was called to account for his racist acts, those tasked with holding him accountable were ill-equipped to do so.
Even if many Canadians admit that Canada is not quite a multicultural utopia, the common refrain one often hears is that “things are much worse in the U.S.” While Canadians have some cause to feel smug when looking at the doleful state of health care coverage and gun violence to the south, the comparison has long served to forestall difficult conversations in Canada about racism, inequality, and a host of other issues. The Trudeau blackface photos have made it impossible to continue ignoring racism in Canada, which was already arguably the central issue of this election.
The first week of the campaign was dominated by reports of various Conservative candidates—Trudeau’s rivals—being outed for previous racist and homophobic remarks. A Winnipeg candidate stepped down after a Facebook account was discovered where he frequently shared anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim posts. Meanwhile, another candidate has been avoiding reporters’ questions about her friendship with notorious white nationalist Faith Goldy, who ran an unsuccessful Toronto mayoral campaign last year on an anti-immigrant platform. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer announced that he will stand by any candidate in his party so long as they simply apologize and “take responsibility,” an act that was left undefined. (Scheer, however, seemed unwilling to extend the same policy to his rival, saying that despite Trudeau’s apology, the prime minister had shown himself unfit to govern.) Further to the right is the newly formed People’s Party of Canada led by Maxime Bernier, who proudly broadcasts his opposition to multiculturalism and what he calls “mass immigration.” His party has also cut a candidate loose over racism—but only because that candidate said the party ought to condemn it.
The only leading figure in the race who has personally experienced racism is Jagmeet Singh, head of the social-democratic New Democratic Party. Singh, who is Sikh and wears a turban, is the first nonwhite leader of a major national political party in Canada. He gave an impassioned speech following the release of the brownface photo, saying it reminded him of the cruelty he has endured for much of his life and asking minority children not to fall into despair. While Singh’s remarks drew praise online, his political future looks bleak. He has fought an uphill battle since taking the helm of the party two years ago, and the objections often have little to do with his policies or leadership. The NDP has struggled to recruit candidates in parts of Canada under his leadership, and the party is well below its historical levels of support and polling behind the Greens in some parts of the country.
The problem for Canadian voters may be Singh himself. Earlier this week, a widely shared CTV News story quoted voters who say they are reluctant to vote for him because of his Sikh faith. One person was quoted wishing Singh would simply remove his turban and “be normal like us.” The headline of the story gingerly suggested that “some voters question whether Canada is ready for a [prime minister] with a turban,” drawing widespread anger at the network’s soft-touch treatment of fairly unambiguous expressions of bigotry.
Such reluctance to look critically at racism in Canada is hopefully coming to an end. The country has a long, painful, and unresolved legacy of mistreating minority groups, particularly indigenous communities who have been subject to broken treaties, mass dispossession, neglect, and abuse. Just this year, a major inquiry found the government of Canada guilty of “genocide” over the unsolved deaths and disappearances of indigenous women and girls. Meanwhile, hate crimes have surged in Canada in recent years, and in Quebec—the province where a gunman massacred six people in a mosque in 2017—a new law bars public employees including teachers from wearing religious symbols, the result of a decadelong effort implicitly targeting Muslim women who wear hijabs and other coverings.
These cracks in Canada’s reputation for tolerance and multiculturism have always been present, but they are becoming harder to cover up with national myths about Canadian niceness and decency, which are now sometimes derisively referred to as the “maplewashing” of Canadian sins. The task is easier when the leader of the country is the very embodiment of those national myths: a feel-good liberal politician that uses the right words and sends the right signals without fundamentally challenging the status quo. But Trudeau’s blackface scandal has shattered that illusion, both for the politician and perhaps the country as well.
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