Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in an armchair discussion at the 2019 CBTU Legislative Conference. Image: Adam Scotti/PMO

In case you somehow missed it, U.S.-based Time magazine threw a grenade into the Canadian election campaign on Wednesday evening when it published a 2001 photo of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in brownface, dressed up as Aladdin for a costume party at the Vancouver private school where he worked.

Trudeau fully apologized, in what sounded like an entirely unscripted and unrehearsed way. In fact, the Liberal leader went further than a simple apology. He freely acknowledged another similar incident, in which he wore blackface and did an imitation of Harry Belafonte singing the calypso song “Day-O.” (Global News subsequently came out with a third instance of what they say is blackface behaviour.)

Opposition leaders did not waste any time to share their reactions. 

Green Leader Elizabeth May pointed out that Trudeau would probably have fired any Liberal candidate about whom similar revelations emerged during the campaign. She added she was puzzled that, in 2001, a grown man, son of a former prime minister, would not know painting his face black or brown could be considered racist behaviour.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh had a more heartfelt and personal response. 

He said it would be up to Canadians to judge Trudeau’s apology, but, for his part, he was mostly concerned about the young people of colour whose sense of self-worth would be upset by this revelation. 

As is his wont, Singh referred directly to his own experience. He talked about how, as a young person of colour, he had to fight back against bullying and racism. The NDP leader pointed out that others in his situation might not had sufficient strength to successfully make that fight. On learning about Trudeau’s past behaviour and seeing the photos, the NDP leader said he was thinking mostly of those who have had to endure racial and ethnic bullying in silence. 

It was a compelling, even moving statement, because it went beyond partisanship to explore the human dimension of a campaign incident. 

Scheer is rubbing his hands with glee

By contrast, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was entirely partisan. 

In a scripted, prepared statement, Scheer lambasted Trudeau’s lack of judgement and unsuitability to lead. He then left the podium without taking questions.

Those were disingenuous words, to say the least. Just a few days earlier, Scheer had said he would forgive Conservative candidates about whom there were embarrassing revelations if they apologized fulsomely and sincerely. 

The bottom line is that it is hard to believe a party leader who has shamelessly pandered to fears about a wildly exaggerated invasion of refugees is now genuinely concerned about racism in Canada. 

Andrew Scheer’s dearest wish is that this controversy, on top of the SNC-Lavalin affair, will give him and his party an unearned victory in October. In the 2006 election, the RCMP’s mid-campaign revelation that they were investigating a Liberal cabinet minister for improperly sharing advance notice of a tax measure with private citizens boosted an unloved Stephen Harper to a minority victory. Scheer and his Conservatives are hoping history will repeat itself this time.  

If that happens, it will be tragic, in the true original Greek sense of the word. 

A fatal flaw — Immaturity? An unhealthy penchant for the theatrical? An excessive fondness for mugging for the camera? — will have laid low a hero who, aside from that flaw, had many commendable and noble characteristics. 

Whatever we make of Justin Trudeau’s interest, as a young person, in painting his face black or brown, the Trudeau government of the past four years has been anything but a racist regime. 

This writer has reported on the Liberals’ many failures and broken promises. But voters should also remember there is a positive side to the Trudeau government record, especially on issues related to diversity and race. 

The current Liberal government opened the door to Syrian refugees; restored health care for all refugee claimants; ended the Harper government’s restrictive measures on family reunification for refugees and immigrants; and even tacitly encouraged refugees from all over the world, who are fearful of their reception in Trump’s U.S., to enter Canada through the back door, as it were, thus getting around  the safe third-country agreement Canada has with the U.S.

The Liberal approach to immigration and refugee policy, and Indigenous affairs, has been far from perfect. But it has been a huge improvement over that of its predecessor, the Harper government. 

As Stephen Harper’s immigration minister, Jason Kenney — now premier of Alberta and a close ally of Scheer — skilfully and in a coded way appealed to centuries-old prejudices against the Roma (or Gypsy) people in his campaign to stop the flow of Central and Eastern European Roma asylum seekers to Canada  

On Indigenous affairs, the main thrust of Harper policy was to focus on the inevitable accounting problems that arose from what more than one auditor general described as an entirely dysfunctional system for funding on-reserve services, such as health and education. It was a blatant case of blaming the victims, and a not-so-subtle appeal to the persistent anti-Indigenous racism that still exists in Canada

Conservatives are still scary, but Trudeau’s past behaviour was beyond bizarre

Like the Republicans south of the border, Canadian Conservatives, these days, are all too happy to play footsie with the more extreme elements of the right and alt right. 

The current Conservative Party of Canada is quite different from the Progressive Conservative party of such decent and enlightened leaders as John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives, like Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, are a hard-right group, who seek to succeed electorally by sowing division and appealing to the lesser angels of our collective personality.

For them now to gain advantage from Justin Trudeau’s admittedly appalling youthful missteps would be an utter travesty.

Having said that, this writer is completely mystified by Trudeau’s past behaviour. 

How is it possible he did not know, as a full-grown adult, that painting your face black or brown and wearing exotic costumes was hurtful and offensive? Blackface, specifically, has a long and painful history of being used to dehumanize Black people. By the dawn of the 21st century, one would have thought we had come a long way from the blackface era, from a time when ethnic and racial humour and stereotyping was acceptable.

Many decades ago, long before 2001, in the late 1970s, I was a story producer, responsible for content related to Quebec, on the CBC radio show Morningside, when the late Don Harron was host. One day, Don recorded a bit with a local Toronto comedian who did his routine in a parody of a Québécois accent. The comedian called himself “Frenchie” something or other. 

It was all supposed to be funny and harmless, but I was not at all comfortable with the bit. I was the most junior person on the show’s team. In the interests of my career, I would have been well-advised to watch my backside and keep my counsel. 

I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, however. I told the host and executive producer that, to me, the routine — based as it was on mocking an accent — was offensive. In the end, they deferred to my judgement and decided not to run the item.

Even then, long before 2001, most of us knew that imitating other cultures or ethnicities was not acceptable. Why didn’t the young Justin Trudeau know as much many years later?

Karl Nerenberg has been a journalist and filmmaker for more than 25 years. He is rabble’s politics reporter.

Image: Adam Scotti/PMO​


Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover news for the rest of us from Parliament Hill. Karl has been a journalist and filmmaker for over 25 years, including eight years as the producer of the CBC...