Four years ago was the first time I was able to participate in a federal election. I was in the third year of my journalism program. I was beginning to develop the casual cynicism that is so common among journalists when it comes to politics. So when Justin Trudeau won while talking about issues like truth and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and the importance of diversity, I genuinely started to believe that politics could be done differently.
Now, just over a week into the new federal election campaign, Trudeau is in hot water after images of him in racist costumes emerged. Three separate instances of the PM dressed in brownface or blackface have surfaced since Wednesday night. First, Time magazine released a photo of Trudeau at an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala hosted by West Point Grey Academy, at which he taught, dressed as Aladdin. Trudeau was 29 at the time and the only person photographed in brownface. The second incident is a photo of Trudeau performing the song “Day-O” at his high school’s talent show, “wearing makeup.” Then, in a video shot in the early ‘90s obtained by Global, Trudeau can be seen wearing blackface.
What is blackface/brownface?
Dressing in blackface is the practice of non-black people darkening their skin and exacerbating stereotypes to mock black people. Blackface in the 1820s involved minstrels using exaggerated accents, malapropisms and outlandish clothes to ridicule black people. It has been used to belittle, dehumanize and spread harmful stereotypes about black people. Calixa Laval, composer of the Canadian national anthem, travelled as a blackface minstrel.
The first person of colour (POC) to lead a major Canadian political party, Jagmeet Singh of the New Democratic Party, was “jarred” seeing Trudeau in brownface. Singh has previously opened up about his experiences with racism, and gave an emotional statement in response.
“Any time we hear examples of brownface or blackface…it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live and what their lived experiences are,” Singh remarked.
Trudeau said that he didn’t think his actions were racist at the time, but now realizes that they were. He has since apologized and asked that Canadians forgive him, adding that he’s “pissed off” with himself.
As a POC, I’m pissed and disappointed too
I’m upset that a well-educated, 29-year-old teacher didn’t have the sense to realize that brownface and blackface are racist. It is concerning considering that Trudeau became the Liberal’s critic for youth and multiculturalism in 2009, then the critic for citizenship and immigration in 2010.
As Tariq Amin-Khan, an associate professor of political science at Ryerson University, points out, “at one level (his response) shows that Justin Trudeau’s understanding about race and racism doesn’t seem to have deep roots.”
Trudeau embraced minority groups and Canada’s multiculturism during his time in office. At one point, seven of his 35 Cabinet members were ethnic minorities. In the wake of this scandal, we wonder if Trudeau was showing a genuine desire for diversity and inclusion, or just tokenism or overcompensation?
Last February, Trudeau announced that Canadians must address the anti-black racism affecting more than one million black Canadians. He then called for equal opportunity and equal treatment for black Canadians.
However, with this scandal, it is hard to take the prime minister’s words seriously. By wearing blackface, Trudeau failed to treat black people with the respect we deserve and robbed us of the opportunity to define and represent ourselves. Blackface attempts to establish essential differences between POCs and white people and suggests that black people are inferior as a matter of biology. Regardless of Trudeau’s intentions, the three images of him support this ideology.
A look to the election
Singh said that the blackface incident is an “ongoing pattern of behaviour that’s really going to hurt Canadians.” I agree and disagree. I agree that Trudeau’s actions have hurt many Canadians and that they’re part of a bigger pattern. However, I do not believe that Trudeau is a racist who hates black and brown people.
The disappointing pattern I’ve noticed with Trudeau is the dissonance between his actions and his words. I was jarred when I saw the images of Trudeau. How could someone who champions multiculturalism and immigration do something like that? But it fits the larger narrative. Justin Trudeau the climate change activist who approved the Trans Atlantic Pipeline; the feminist who kicked Jane Philpott and Jodie Wilson-Raybould out of his Cabinet for disagreeing with him.
I understand that politicians are complicated and that it’s important to avoid making sweeping conclusions around election time. But I will say this: before voting this Fall, remember to carefully consider the politician and the platform. Consider the claims they make about themselves and their opponents; consider what issues matter most to you and vote for the candidate who will disappoint you the least.
Marcus is a poet, editor and freelance journalist based in Toronto. He currently works with New Canadian Media as an Editor and as a Freelance Writer for ByBlacks.com, The Edge: A Leader's Magazine and The Soapbox Press.