Blackface photos back Trudeau into political corner 

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Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during a campaign event in Mississauga, Ontario.   Photo by Ryan Remiorz/AP

Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau speaks during a campaign event in Mississauga, Ontario.

Photo by Ryan Remiorz/AP

In many ways, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was Canada’s answer to Barack Obama: A young and charismatic political figure seen as an icon among liberals in his country. Though his popularity has wavered in the months leading up to October’s federal election, Trudeau’s chance at another term looked like a strong possibility. 

However, Trudeau’s re-electability odds took a huge hit on the evening of Sept. 18, when photos from a 2001 “Arabian Nights” party at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy surfaced on the internet. The photos, first published by Time Magazine, show a 29-year-old Trudeau, then a teacher at the school, wearing a turban, a traditional religious robe and dark makeup commonly known as “blackface”. After the photos surfaced, Trudeau also admitted to wearing similar makeup in high school to perform a Jamaican folk song for his classmates. 

When an old controversy resurfaces in politics, those who defend the wrongdoer seem to be quick to dismiss an incident. It is true that the Canadian premier’s actions 18 years ago have little implication on his ability to hold public office. However, given Trudeau’s background and the policies he stands for, I find it difficult to view his run-ins with blackface as anything but inexcusable foolishness. 

First of all, Trudeau’s father was none other than Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The elder Trudeau served as Canada’s prime minister for a total of 15 years in the 1970s and 1980s. With such a close connection to his country’s political elite, even a young Justin probably understood the consequences of wearing blackface. The practice has generally been condemned in Western society since the American civil rights movement.  

But the bigger issue here is the contrast between what Trudeau claims to stand for and his past actions. His reputation for being compassionate to refugees and minorities seemingly disappeared when these images emerged. And Trudeau’s shaky press conference performances in the days following the scandal did little to restore the public’s faith. 

During a Sept. 19 press conference in Halifax, Trudeau apologized for his actions and denounced wearing blackface as “racist”. However, he never used the word “blackface” in any statements, opting for the euphemism “makeup” instead. 

Later, Trudeau attempted to explain his behavior by claiming that his “privilege” blinded him to racism in practice. Justifiably angry conservatives viewed his comments as a way to place blame on the structure of Canadian society.  

Among these angry conservatives was Andrew Scheer, the leader of Canada’s Conservative Party who is challenging Trudeau in the upcoming election. Despite his questionable record on the subject of race, Scheer correctly stated that “[wearing blackface] was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019”.  

Trudeau’s inability to deal with the blackface scandal has the potential to flip this election entirely. Most pre-blackface polls showed Trudeau and Scheer deadlocked or within one percentage point. However, the latest national poll gives Scheer a lead of nearly three percentage points. And Andrew Scheer is not exactly a popular figure among Canadian conservatives.  

Justin Trudeau’s personal and emotional response demonstrates that he possesses a deep regret for his wrongdoings. But his political response has been misguided and vague.  

This poorly timed scandal leaves Trudeau’s future in public service up in the air. It will take some crafty campaign work to restore the confidence of minority Canadians, many of whom played a critical role in bringing him to power. 


Carson Swick is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at carson.swick@uconn.edu.

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