It’s been days since Time magazine revealed that Justin Trudeau, who is currently running for re-election, wore blackface to a party in 2001 when he was a teacher at a Vancouver private school.
Since then, the Globe and Mail and Global News uncovered a photo a video, respectively, showing Trudeau in blackface on two other occasions. Trudeau has said he doesn’t know for sure how many times he wore blackface.
The Liberal leader has faced the press a few times since Time’s initial story broke, and he has apologized for his actions. However, he has avoided answering a few basic questions, such as why he repeatedly wore blackface, and what exactly made him realize it was racist.
On Tuesday evening, Global News published a sitdown interview between Trudeau and anchor Dawna Friesen—the first one-on-one interview he’s done since the scandal surfaced.
Friesen spent seven minutes asking Trudeau about wearing blackface, but for the most part he parroted the lines he’s already used. He offered little new insight into his decision making at the time, aside from saying that his involvement in politics, youth leadership groups—and studying geography??—helped him see that blackface was wrong. Trudeau also said he would continue to focus on fighting anti-Black racism and intolerance, but didn’t give any specifics on his past record on those issues or policies he has planned.
When asked if he’s a hypocrite, Trudeau told Friesen he sets high standards for himself as well as for other people.
“It was a terrible mistake and I take full responsibility for it,” he said. “I apply those high standards for myself. I will always fight against racism, intolerance, and discrimination and I hurt a lot of people who considered me an ally."
He said he deserves forgiveness because of his track record on race issues.
“Putting real money and real initiatives and working hard to fight all this intolerance is something that I’ve done and I’m going to continue to do and I’m going to continue to do even more given that I have obviously not lived up to that in the past.”
But critics say Trudeau’s record on race issues leaves much to be desired. He has not outright said that he will do anything about Quebec’s secularism law, which bans public servants from where religious symbols on the job, including a hijab or turban. His government appointed Bill Blair minister of border security and is making it more difficult for refugees to claim asylum in Canada, by turning away people who’ve had unsuccessful claims in the U.S. He also bought the Trans Mountain pipeline, overriding opposition from Indigenous communities, despite his supposed commitment to reconciliation. And he refuses to consider decriminalizing drugs other than cannabis, despite the fact that drug-related arrests disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous Canadians.
In a particularly embarrassing moment, Global’s Friesen asked Trudeau, “When did you stop thinking that darkening your skin was acceptable? Did someone tell you, you know, ‘Hey this is crazy. You’re covering not only your face, your throat, your hands.’ I think in the video even your legs. Did someone say to you, ‘Justin you gotta give this up’?”
In response, Trudeau said his riding of Papineau, Quebec is one of the most diverse in the country. He said as an MP there in 2008 and 2009, he was “spending time in mosques and gurdwaras and with the Haitain community and all the different communities in my riding and fighting for them led me to understand to a much greater degree the kind of discrimination and intolerance that people face on a daily basis because of the colour of their skin and that’s why I understand now which I should have understood then, that it is always unacceptable.”
He also described the years after his father’s death in September 2000 as being a period of change for him.
“I went back to school, studied engineering, studied environmental geography. I got involved more with Katimavik, Canada’s national youth service program, I did more environmental and youth activism,” he said. “I was learning a lot more about public engagement, a lot more about service and obviously I am a very different person today than I was back then.”
Polls suggest Canadians aren’t particularly bothered by Trudeau’s blackface, which isn’t surprising. But Trudeau shouldn’t rely on that if he is serious about proving he’s an ally. Instead, he should be talking about actual policies he will unroll to fight racism in Canada. If he doesn’t, his actions will speak for themselves.