TORONTO – On the night that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau swept to his landslide victory in 2015, he said voters had chosen “a government that believes deeply in the diversity of our country.”
In the four years since, he has cast himself as a global standard-bearer for inclusion, making it the center of his political platform and public persona as few leaders have anywhere, ever. He swore in a diverse, gender-balanced cabinet. He admitted more than 25,000 refugees from Syria, and went to the airport to greet the first arrivals. His government put Viola Desmond – a black woman who spurred the end of segregation in Nova Scotia – on the 10-dollar bill.
There have been missteps – most notably, accusations this year that he pressured his attorney general, an indigenous woman, to cut a deal with a construction firm from his home province that has been charged with bribery.
Now the emergence of images from years or decades ago in which Trudeau wore blackface or brownface have dealt the Liberal leader’s assiduously crafted image and already-shaky bid for reelection a potentially crippling blow.
“This thing is a wildfire,” said Darrell Bricker, chief executive of the polling firm Ipsos Public Affairs in Toronto. “All of a sudden there’s just a picture, and you don’t have to explain it. Everyone knows what it is.”
Trudeau’s Liberal Party has been locked in a tight race with Andrew Scheer’s Conservative Party ahead of the Oct. 21 vote. Canada’s federal elections are often won or lost in the ethnically diverse middle-class suburbs outside Toronto and Vancouver, where a small percentage of disenchanted Liberal supporters switching their allegiance – or simply staying home – could swing the election.
The Conservatives have been running election ads warning that Trudeau was “not as advertised.” Now the images – two photos published Wednesday evening, and a video that emerged Thursday morning – appeared to validate the message.
Trudeau, 47, apologized again Thursday for the incidents: A 2001 party at which he appeared with his face darkened and wearing a feathered turban, a high school performance in blackface to sing “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” and a brief video in blackface that his campaign said was from the early 1990s.
“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” Trudeau said from Winnipeg in an appearance broadcast live across Canada. “I should have understood that then and I shouldn’t have done it.”
The images come just one month after Canada’s ethics watchdog ruled that Trudeau broke ethics laws last year when he pressured then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to pursue an out-of-court settlement with the SNC-Lavalin construction firm.
That incident triggered several high-profile resignations from government and blasted a hole through Trudeau’s brand. Having sold Canadians on the promise of leadership beyond reproach and open to diverse views, he stood accused of backroom politicking, bullying Wilson-Raybould and being a fake feminist.
Support for Trudeau declined as the scandal unfolded early this year, but climbed again over the summer. Now he faces a new challenge.
Balpreet Singh, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said that he was “disappointed” by the new images, but that he doesn’t think the prime minister is “racist.”
“All of us who are racialized minorities know what it feel like to be discriminated against,” he said. “Blackface and brownface really does mock our experience. We can’t scrub our skin color off when the party is over.”
Wilson-Raybould, who was booted from the Liberal caucus and is running for reelection as an independent, said Wednesday she was “extremely disappointed” by the photos.
“I’m incredibly proud to be an indigenous person in this country, one that has experienced racism and discrimination,” she told reporters. “It’s completely unacceptable for anybody in a position of authority and power to do something like that.”
Trudeau first apologized Wednesday evening, after Time magazine published a photo from the 2001 party, which he said had an Arabian Nights theme. He said then there was also an incident from high school, the performance in blackface. Global News published the video, also involving blackface, on Thursday morning.
Trudeau said Thursday he could not be “definitive” about whether there are more images or videos yet to come to light because he had not remembered some of the images that have surfaced. He said he had not talked about the incidents publicly because he felt “embarrassed” and had not understand his privilege.
“It’s not something that represents the person I’ve become, the leader I’ve tried to be,” he said.
He said his late father, former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, wouldn’t have been “pleased” with his behavior, but would feel that “taking responsibility for things is important.”
It’s not the first time Trudeau has come under fire from critics who accuse him of acting one way in private and another in public, of being smug and sanctimonious, of being good at symbolism but bad at the follow-through. His government implemented a price on carbon and declared a national “climate emergency” but bought an oil pipeline. He describes himself as a feminist, but his government has refused to block the sale of light-armored vehicles to Saudi Arabia, a country condemned internationally for its treatment of women. He came to power promising electoral reform but abandoned the promise once in office.
Liberal lawmakers stood by Trudeau. Greg Fergus, vice chairman of the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Association and a Liberal member from Quebec, said he had spoken with the prime minister and accepted his apology.
“If it happened last week, it would shock me to the core,” Fergus told reporters in Ottawa. “But things that happened 20 years ago? Different time.”
Omar Yar Khan, who has served as a strategist for the Liberals, described cycling through several anger, frustration and regret. He said the incidents suggest “a lack of judgment,” but he didn’t think Trudeau had “any ill intent.”
“I know Justin Trudeau, and I worked with him,” said Khan, a vice president of public affairs at Hill + Knowlton Strategies. “I know the real Justin Trudeau isn’t today what is represented in those images and I don’t think the real Justin Trudeau is what is represented in those images even back then.”
Khan said “Canadians are inherently a forgiving bunch,” but Trudeau will need to show contrition and talk about what he and his government are doing to address systemic discrimination.
Bricker said Trudeau has handed his opponents new ammunition.
“The Conservatives are really motivated, and they really want Trudeau gone,” Bricker said. “The Liberals were holding their noses a bit, even before today, and weren’t as motivated. So this is a big problem for them.”
Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, said her polling has shown that voters say Trudeau’s tolerance, compassion and influence are strong points when compared to Scheer.
“The outstanding question is will this be the political equivalent of necrotizing fasciitis and just eat away at political support for him,” she said. “For his own political survival, this is not something that he can afford having follow him day after day, week after week on the campaign trail.”
A key indicator, she said, will be how young voters, crucial to Trudeau’s victory in 2015, react to the revelations. If they stay home or vote for a left-of-center party, he could find himself in trouble. She said there could be divisions in how different generations within Canada’s minority communities view the photos and images.
Blackface has a long history in Canada, and remained a common form of entertainment in schools, churches and community groups well into the 1970s. The composer of “O Canada,” the national anthem, Calixa Lavallée, spent much of his early career performing in blackface in minstrel troupes in Canada and the United States.
American minstrels traveled often to Canada, and homegrown troupes also sprung up. Philip S.S. Howard, a professor at McGill University, wrote in 2017 paper that this reveals “the Canada-U. S. border to be, in fact, quite porous to U.S.-style racism.”
More contemporary instances of Canadians in blackface often garner attention here, but never involving a figure as prominent as Trudeau. In 2014, for instance, a Quebec theater featured an actor in blackface portraying then-Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban. College students are condemned nearly every year for dressing blackface during campus Halloween parties.
Voting by recent immigrants from West Central Asia and the Middle East rose by 22 percentage points from 2011 to 2015, according to government data. Voting by recent immigrants from Africa jumped 25 points.
Scheer said the emergence of the video Thursday morning showed Trudeau’s apology the night before was “based on a lie.” He said his campaign was approached with the video, and turned it over to reporters.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, said the images were evidence of “a pattern of behavior of making light of the struggles that people face.”
“Young kids are going to see not one, not two, but multiple images of the prime minister mocking their lived reality,” he said.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May said she felt “physically ill” when she saw the photos.
“At that point in his life, I think you’d have to say he was unconsciously racist,” she said. “I would not say that the man I know today was a racist, but I couldn’t have imagined that photo, either.”