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Trudeau in blackface is a low point in his political career

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets supporters after speaking at an election campaign stop in Brampton, Ontario, Canada September 22, 2019.  (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Osorio)
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets supporters after speaking at an election campaign stop in Brampton, Ontario, Canada September 22, 2019. (Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Osorio)

RACISM or youthful indiscretion? Images published one week into Canada’s general election showing Justin Trudeau in blackface mark a low point in his political career, but a new poll this week showed the photographs have not significantly swayed voters ahead of the October 21 election.

Three separate images of the Canadian leader in blackface makeup decades ago were published a month before Canadians go to the polls on October 21, with the Liberals in a tight race against the Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer.

A fervent advocate of multiculturalism, and son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau – who is considered the father of modern Canada, the 47-year-old heads the Liberal Party.

A least six members of Trudeau’s cabinet have Asian or African heritage.

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” Trudeau said last week. “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”

“The fact is that I didn’t understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day. I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot.”

“And for that I am deeply sorry, and I apologize.”

The blackface photographs and video footage were taken of Trudeau at a high school talent contest belting out a Harry Belafonte hit, at a party with fellow rafting guides in the early 1990s and at an “Arabian Nights”-themed event at a school where he taught 18 years ago.

They quickly went viral, particularly in the United States where blackface is considered openly racist in mainstream culture.

Blackface dates back to about 1830 when white performers caked their faces in greasepaint or shoe polish and drew on exaggerated lips in a caricature of blacks as somehow inferior, ignorant, lazy and even animalistic.

Some Canadians have expressed disappointment with Trudeau’s behaviour but said the scandal would not affect their voting intentions. Supporters pointed to his record of progressivism while others say social and pocketbook issues drive this election.

Tejinder Singh, who is of Indian descent, said the pictures will not change his vote. “He has been very good to us. I am not interested in the photos. We support him,” Singh said in the town of Stoney Creek, east of Hamilton, earlier on Monday.

New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, a turban-wearing Sikh, said last week: “I face a lot of racism in my life and I’ve got to be honest with you, I fought back with my fists. But there were a lot of people who weren’t able to do that. One of my friends told me how he was not able to do that.

“And seeing this image today, the kids that see this image, the people who 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 those people right now. I want to talk to all the kids out there, all the folks that live this and now are grown up and are still feeling the pain of racism.

“I want you to know that 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, you are loved. And I don’t want you to give up on Canada and please don’t give up on yourselves.”

Trudeau was already under fire for an ethics lapse and other controversies, so the resurfacing of photos and videos of him engaging in activities he himself termed “racist” dealt a fresh blow to his chances.

“I recognise that it is something absolutely unacceptable to do,” Trudeau told a news conference during a campaign stop in Winnipeg.

Trudeau and the Liberals won a landslide victory in 2015, but are this year in a tight contest against the Conservatives led by Scheer.

Scheer, who has been Trudeau’s most ardent critic, hammering him on ethics lapses, used the episode to once again call into question Trudeau’s fitness and “moral authority to govern.”

Wearing brownface or blackface, he said, “was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019.”