Brownface photo challenges Trudeau to prove who he really is

“Who is the real Mr. Trudeau?”

The photo of Justin Trudeau wearing brownface at an event in 2001 had only just been published by Time magazine when Jagmeet Singh, upon finishing an event in Toronto, was asked for comment. And so the NDP leader, the first racialized Canadian ever to lead a federal party, was forced to come up with a response without having seen the image and before he could consult with his advisers.

After pausing for a few seconds to consider his response, Singh called the image (or at least the idea of it) “troubling” and “insulting.” Then, he hit upon the question that may now weigh on Justin Trudeau for the next four weeks.

“We see one Mr. Trudeau in public, that seems — I’ll be honest with you, seems really nice, right? Very friendly, very warm in public. But behind closed doors he seems like he’s a different Mr. Trudeau,” Singh said, invoking Trudeau’s curt dismissal of two Grassy Narrows protesters at a Liberal fundraiser in March. “Who is the real Mr. Trudeau?”

There is no excuse for brownface. An event entitled “Arabian Nights” seems like a relic of the past, but there is no solace in this having been a different time. A white person donning brownface or blackface was never not wrong.

“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better, but I didn’t and I’m really sorry,” Trudeau said when he appeared before the cameras onboard the Liberal campaign plane. “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do and I am deeply sorry.”

That will surely not be enough. If there is any getting past this, Trudeau will have to do more. But he was at least wise enough to begin without equivocation.

The photo surely would have ended Trudeau’s political ambitions if it had emerged during the 2015 campaign. The knock then was that he “just wasn’t ready,” that he was callow and lacked seriousness. He was an unproven candidate applying for a job. This would have been enough to rule him out.

In the midst of the 2019 campaign, Trudeau can only hope that he has shown enough over the last four years to render the photo something less than a defining mistake.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer react after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau apologized for appearing in brownface in 2001 on Wednesday. 0:57

Jarring image

It would be shocking to see any modern political leader in such a costume. But it is perhaps particularly jarring to see Trudeau, a leader who has made diversity and acceptance central elements of his message and appeal.

It was a theme when he launched his campaign for the Liberal leadership in 2012 and he held fast to it as nationalism and xenophobia roiled politics across the Western world.

The man who dressed up in brownface in 2001 went on to loudly condemn the Harper government’s move to ban the niqab during the swearing of the citizenship oath and proudly embrace refugees from Syria. He and his government supported a parliamentary study of Islamophobia, launched a federal anti-racism strategy and funded a new “Centre for Gender, Diversity and Inclusion Statistics.”

Five months ago, Trudeau stood in the House of Commons and delivered a strident speech on the threat of white supremacy.

All that could now come with a significant and prominent asterisk.

Singh: ‘A lot of hurt’

Trudeau will be asked whether the photo from 2001 had occurred to him at all over the last 18 years and he will be asked to square this with his party’s criticism of Conservatives for their past mistakes. But more important might be how he accounts for his own. While Trudeau apologized Wednesday evening, he did not consider aloud the hurt he may have caused.

“Seeing this image is gonna be hard for a lot of people, it’s going to bring up a lot of pain,” Singh said in a second appearance on Wednesday night, after he had seen the photo. “It’s going to bring up a lot of hurt.”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Wednesday that for many victims of racism, a 2001 photo showing Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing “brownface” will bring “a lot hurt.” (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau’s connection to the public and his willingness to show compassion and emotion are among his most distinctive traits as a leader. He now needs to acknowledge the impact his actions may have on others, and to do that directly and in person with racialized Canadians and community leaders. He will also need to listen.

And ideally, it will be the voices of racialized Canadians that come to the fore.

All the while, Trudeau will have to continue campaigning for a second term, a task that he has already made harder for himself with unforced errors.

Near the end of his appearance before the cameras on Wednesday night, Trudeau was asked what he would be reflecting about the next few days.

“I’m going to be thinking about how much harder I’m going to have to continue to work to demonstrate to Canadians that I’m focused on building a better world with less discrimination, less intolerance and less racism,” he said.

The next four weeks will be about who the real Mr. Trudeau is and whether he is the right choice to lead this country.

“I shouldn’t have done that, I should have known better but I didn’t and I’m deeply sorry,” Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says to reporters about brownface incident. 11:31

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