Trudeau has reckoned with the past before, but now it is his own history he must address

Justin Trudeau has embraced the idea that the government of Canada should acknowledge and apologize for its wrongs.

As prime minister, he has officially dealt with some of the most shameful moments in the nation’s collective past: the turning away of the Komagata Maru in 1914, the treatment of children in residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, the federal government’s discrimination against LGBT Canadians, the hanging of six Tsilhqot’in chiefs in 1864, the refusal to accept the the asylum requests of more than 900 German Jews in 1939, the mistreatment of Inuit with tuberculosis several decades ago and the conviction of Chief Poundmaker for treason in 1885.

In the fall of 2017, after Trudeau used a speech to the United Nations General Assembly to confront Canada’s painful history of mistreating Indigenous people, the Conservative party asked its supporters in a fundraising email whether they were “tired of people apologizing for our country’s rich history.”

But for all that — for all the wrongdoing and pain Trudeau has addressed — it is something else entirely when the wrongs you are accounting for are your own.

That is immeasurably more difficult.

Trudeau’s initial apology on Wednesday night was not enough and not only because another image emerged on Thursday morning. And what he said with his second appearance before the cameras surely won’t be the end of this. 

But on Thursday — standing on the grass of a city square in downtown Winnipeg, surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers — he went further, wrestling with himself and trying to account for the inexcusable.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau apologizes while answering reporters’ questions in Winnipeg about the emergence of images of him in blackface in Thursday. 21:50

‘It was blackface’

First and foremost, he acknowledged the hurt he had caused and the “racist history of blackface” that he should have been aware of. When a reporter referred to “makeup,” Trudeau corrected him.

“I appreciate you calling it makeup, but it was blackface. And that is just not right,” Trudeau said. “It is something that people who live with the kind of discrimination that far too many people do because of the colour of their skin, or their history or their origins or their religion face on a regular basis and I didn’t see that from the layers of privilege that I have.”

One take on Trudeau in his youth, offered by friends, is that he grew up understanding the significance of his last name, knowing that he had to be careful about how he acted and not wanting to embarrass his father. His political career has grown around an idea that he should do something with the advantages he was given.

But he has also shown that he can be a ham. He has a performative streak. He can throw himself down a flight of stairs as a party trick. For Halloween in 2017, he showed up to the House of Commons dressed as Clark Kent and pulled open his shirt to reveal the Superman logo.

And he was unquestionably a child of privilege: raised at 24 Sussex Drive in Ottawa’s tony Rockcliffe neighbourhood, educated at Montreal’s prestigious Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf and then McGill.

That doesn’t excuse anything, but it might be part of an explanation.

“I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that that comes with a massive blind spot,” he said.

Ontario Liberal Candidate Omar Alghabra reacts to Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s three instances of using blackface. 7:38

‘I was embarrassed’

Trudeau could not explain why he did it. Nor could he account for precisely when it dawned on him that blackface was wrong. Maybe such things are difficult to pinpoint, but he might be asked again to try.

He also could not say with certainty how many times he did something so insensitive — a politician’s hedge against being contradicted later, but a shaky response on a human level.

He faced up to the fact that he hadn’t faced up to this before yesterday.

“I never talked about this,” he said. “Quite frankly, I was embarrassed. It was not something that represents the person I’ve become, the leader I try to be and it was really embarrassing.”

Three years ago or six years ago this could have been offered proactively and addressed as part of his personal evolution. Four weeks short of an election, he risks paying an incredible cost for not having dealt with this earlier.

Asked about Canada’s international reputation, Trudeau broadened the conversation to acknowledge systemic discrimination and the very real barriers and pain that racialized Canadians still face.

He might try to place his own story within that history and that reality. Or perhaps it would be better if racialized voices took that lead first. Either way, there is a story to tell. 

MP Greg Fergus stands by Liberal leader Justin Trudeau after photos and video of him in blackface surface, and says that many in the black community are willing to forgive because of his track record as Prime Minister. 2:15

Not good enough

Trudeau has been strident on issues of diversity — though also capable of restraint, as displayed during a town hall in January — and he might not regret having pushed that message. But he will be pursued by charges of hypocrisy and questions about how the Liberal campaign has pursued the past errors of Conservative candidates. When you claim ideals, you can be punished for not living up to them.

Ultimately the conversation may turn to what his government has done to address discrimination and what more must be done. 

“I’ve had to reflect on the fact that wanting to do good and wanting to do better simply isn’t good enough,” Trudeau said, “and you need to take responsibility for mistakes that hurt people who thought I was an ally, who… hopefully many of them still consider me an ally even though this was a terrible mistake.”

Trudeau spoke on Thursday of having to explain himself to his children (and his eyes got red as he recounted that). He called members of his caucus yesterday before Time magazine’s story was published. And he spoke privately with Liberal candidates and community leaders before addressing reporters in Winnipeg.

He will need to keep talking and trying to explain.

“The apologies for things past are important to make sure that we actually understand and know and share and don’t repeat those mistakes,” Trudeau said in 2017, speaking of his government’s official acknowledgements.

The past must be reckoned with for the sake of the future — be it the future of Canada, the future of Justin Trudeau, or both.

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