There you have it. As if by a genie’s magic, Canada’s hateful 43rd election—up to now a trite and tedious battle over piecemeal tax credits and troubling Conservative social media posts—has been totally flipped on its head.
On Wednesday, TIME magazine published a photo of yet-to-be Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in full brownface (complete with gaudy turban) for an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001 at the Vancouver private school where he was teaching. While everyone else in attendance is dressed more-or-less on theme, seemingly only Trudeau had painted all his skin.
(As it turns out, there is also a second photo from the event, unearthed today by Robert Jago in CANADALAND. “It was freely available online via the Wayback Machine for the past decade and a half,” he notes. Also, as I was writing this, a further video of Trudeau wearing blackface in the 1990s emerged.)
For most ordinary white politicians, being shown on camera in black-or brownface marks the nadir of the political career. In 2019 alone, two American governors—Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and Alabama Governor Kay Ivey—faced mass public backlash after both were revealed to have dressed in blackface in the 1980s and 1960s, respectively. Northam, a Democrat, was nearly deposed by his party, but appears to have so far survived. Ivey also remains in office.
But Trudeau is no ordinary white politician—or, at least, that was the promise. Certainly there had already been some tarnishing between now and his first tour of the hustings as Liberal leader. “Sunny ways” were long ago traded for what might best be called “Harperism with a human face,” where the zealous young reformer of #RealChange is transformed by the rigours of realpolitik into the moralizing cynic of #ChooseForward.
Sure, the “most important relationship” between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian state may have fallen to the wayside under the pressures of petro-nationalism. And, sure, the Liberals may have capitulated to nativists on the refugee file. But Trudeau could talk a big game about intersectional social justice and the value of liberal multiculturalism at a moment when both concepts are under heavy fire from reactionaries at home and abroad, and that is no mean feat.
As his promised progressive program slowly melted away—and the geopolitical clouds over the liberal world darkened—Trudeau’s image as social justice comandante became increasingly valuable. It was a natural fit in that both the Conservatives and the People’s Party are riddled with assholes, and the fact that the anti-racist white guy running the Liberals is more palatable to many (most?) Canadians than the anti-racist brown guy running the NDP.
So it is understandable that in the policy vacuum of this federal election, the Trudeau campaign has rested more or less squarely on the premise that every candidate to the right of the Liberals is a Bad Person With A Problematic Past. Nearly every day so far has opened with a prominent Liberal releasing some opposition research blasting Tory hopefuls for their past homophobia or adjacency to religious cranks and/or white supremacists. In retrospect, maybe the Freudian Death Drive was at work when Trudeau set the Liberal war room down this road without warning them that, ah, by the way, I may have also been caught on camera while doing a racism.
At any rate, not long after the story broke, Trudeau held an emergency press conference aboard his claustrophobic campaign plane. He acknowledged the incident as racist and also admitted to dressing up in blackface for a high school talent show to sing “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O).” He apologized profusely for the mistake, assured us he will teach his children about the importance of owning up to your mistakes, and soberly noted that he was often “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.” Maybe, though I don’t remember the literal Mr. Dressup ever keeping a minstrel costume in the Tickle Trunk, and he started on television in the 1960s.
(Incidentally, as far as Canadian political euphemisms go, “enthusiastic about costumes” rates up there with as ex-Liberal MP Scott Andrews insisting in 2015 that his “jovial Newfoundland friendliness” was misinterpreted as sexual harassment.)
It isn’t clear where the federal election campaign goes from here. Trudeau’s personal brand has taken a beating over the last year, but the brownface and blackface photos represent perhaps the final inversion of the persona sold to Canadians. There is no “good” way to handle the sudden exposure of racist photos, but certainly an especially bad way is when you have been baying for blood over similar sins from your moral high horse and then you’re pleading special treatment when you’re suddenly trampled under its feet. He who lives by the cancellation shall surely die by the cancellation. If it was anybody other than the Liberals’ one-term-deep head honcho, they would have been drawn and quartered on the runway.
One wonders how this will change the Liberal campaign. They opened this Pandora’s box and now must live with everything else that emerges. Are they going to ratchet back their campaign of Conservative “gotchas?” Or does their oppo research now go nuclear?
This is not exactly a gift to the opposition, either. Outside of People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier, there may be no one in the country with less moral authority to speak about racism in Canadian politics than Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. Having spent the first week of the campaign on the run from accusations of homophobia, racism, and anti-abortion zeal, Scheer declared his official policy on Problematic Pasts: “As long as someone takes responsibility for what they said, and addresses the fact that in 2019 some things that may have been said in the past are inappropriate today, that if anything they’ve ever said in the past caused any type of hurt or disrespect to any one community or another and have apologized for that, I accept that.”
So it’s more than a little rich for him to now demand Trudeau’s resignation for the sort of thing he’s already officially given a pass. Besides, it is difficult to believe that anyone genuinely bothered by Trudeau’s brownface is going to jump ship to the Tories. (Bernier, for his part, seems to disagree with the accusations of racism—in case you are wondering how the Canadian right is split over this.)
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, meanwhile, was uniquely positioned to address this thoughtfully. Unlike either Trudeau or Scheer, Singh is intimately familiar with what racism is, how it hurts, and its real moral significance beyond partisan political football. His statement reflected what is really at stake: "The kids that see this image... are going to think about all the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are… I want to talk to all the kids out there. You might feel like giving up on Canada. You might feel like giving up on yourselves. I want you to know that you have value, you have worth and you are loved and I don't want you to give up on Canada and please don't give up on yourselves."
It is a raw and touching statement. But it is unclear whether the NDP is organized enough across Canada to transform this righteousness into concrete gains. That may all depend on how the forthcoming discourse about racism in Canada plays out.
Things don’t bode well. Canada does not seem especially well-prepared for a discussion about structural racism and the banality of evil—doubly so in the midst of this mind-numbing federal election. This is especially true of the country’s political media, which is overwhelmingly white, male, and high-middle-to-upper class. The Globe and Mail has already gone out of its way to defend the utterly poisonous Rebel Media as good-faith contributors to Canadian journalism, the province of Quebec has received a free pass to hassle religious minorities under the guise of “secularism,” and we are regularly treated to stories about how “ordinary” (white) NDP-leaning voters or members “aren’t ready” for a Sikh man to lead the party.
Given that this story broke in TIME rather than a Canadian outlet, you have to wonder whether any media companies here turned the story down and what reasons they gave. You also have to wonder why it didn’t come in the 11 years Trudeau has been MP, the six years he has been leader of the Liberals, his first election campaign as leader four years ago, or his first term as prime minister.
(Though in CANADALAND, Robert Jago has perhaps the best explanation: “Because he was a lifelong celebrity, I’d no sooner look into his background than I would the backgrounds of Prince William or a Kennedy—people about whom all is apparently known.”)
Regardless of its provenance or why it was missed before, it is now impossible to miss. By making this campaign all about his personal and political morality, Trudeau has painted himself into a corner as enthusiastically as he painted himself for that private school cultural appropriation party.
It is a job now left for voters to try and reconcile the serenely smiling image Trudeau has spent years crafting with those grainy yearbook photos of a smirking racist genie. It is starting to seem like the prime minister has used up all his wishes.
Follow Drew Brown on Twitter.