‘It’s going to be rough’: Liberals in damage control mode over Trudeau ‘brownface’ scandal

The Liberal campaign is in full-blown damage control mode today following a “brownface” bombshell that could put the Trudeau brand and the party’s electoral fortunes in jeopardy.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, known globally for his “diversity is our strength” mantra, is making international headlines after photographs and a video emerged showing him in racist makeup. He apologized late Wednesday and admitted his past actions were racist.

Trudeau spent the first part of today reaching out to candidates, party staff and community leaders to try to explain his actions. The Liberal campaign cancelled a morning event; Trudeau is now expected to address the media at 2:15 p.m. ET in Winnipeg.

The controversy is drawing mixed reactions from the Liberal ranks.

Greg Fergus, a black Liberal MP seeking re-election in Hull-Aylmer, Que., said Trudeau should be judged on his “great record” promoting equality and diversity, not on incidents nearly 20 years in the past.

“I think those are really the measure of the man and that’s the reason why I have confidence in his continuing leadership,” he said.

Fergus said the prime minister likely did not divulge his past behaviour earlier because he was embarrassed and ashamed. He said Trudeau called him personally before the story emerged late Wednesday.

Fergus said many of the black Canadians he has spoken with since the scandal broke are confused and offended.

‘People are feeling hurt’

“It’s going to be rough. People are feeling hurt,” he said.

The 2001 incident, which saw a 29-year-old Trudeau wear brownface as part of an Aladdin costume for a school fundraising event called Arabian Nights, was brought to light by an article in Time Magazine. A photo and separate video of other incidents were subsequently released showing Trudeau in racist makeup.

Katie Omstead, the Liberal candidate for Chatham-Kent-Leamington, issued a statement Thursday saying that she is “disappointed” by the images.

“I simply don’t care how old these images are. Being a teacher, my heart goes out to students everywhere who have been affected by racism, homophobia and bullying,” she said.

“We’ve seen him apologize sincerely, and accept full responsibility. I know, as does he, how serious this is. We need to continue to have conversations about discrimination, and what we can do to teach our children, and those of us who lead, to respect the diversity of all Canadians. We all need to be better.”

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is shown in this 2001 photo published in the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau was teaching at the time. (time.com)

Part of the Liberal campaign strategy has been to call out Conservative candidates for past indiscretions. Some opponents are calling Trudeau a hypocrite today.

Liberal commentator Susan Smith said Trudeau must keep apologizing and emphasizing the work he has done on diversity as an MP and as prime minister, such as appointing a diverse cabinet, welcoming Syrian refugees and promoting Indigenous reconciliation and gender equality.

“For voters, the intent, the track record as PM and the future vision will likely matter more than the distant past,” Smith said.

“When the dust settles, I think the real question for Canadians is, ‘Do you think Justin Trudeau is a racist?’ And if people are being honest with themselves, the answer is, ‘No.'”

While it may be a factor for some Canadians on voting day, Smith said she doubts it will be a key ballot issue.

Former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings defended Trudeau on Twitter, praising him for owning up to his mistakes “openly, honestly” and making real efforts to do better.

Liberal MP Nick Whalen tweeted that he spoke about the issue with his children, saying they immediately understood that “dressing up as cultures” is wrong, disrespectful and oppressive.



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