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Canada’s Trudeau tries to contain furor over brownface photo from 2001

Updated September 19, 2019 - 10:33 am

TORONTO — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s campaign moved to contain a growing furor Thursday after a yearbook photo surfaced of him in brownface at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” costume party and two other similar incidents came to light.

With his bid for re-election just a month away, the 47-year-old Trudeau begged Canadians to forgive him.

“I should have known better then, but I didn’t, and I am deeply sorry for it,” he said, adding: “It was a dumb thing to do.”

Time magazine published the photo on Wednesday, saying it was taken from the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Trudeau worked as a teacher before going into politics. It shows the then-29-year-old Trudeau in a turban and robe with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.

‘Not fit to govern’

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who is mounting a serious challenge to the prime minister in the Oct. 21 vote, reacted by declaring that Trudeau “is not fit to govern this country.”

The morning after the story broke, Trudeau gave no sign at all that he might resign, and no figures in his Liberal Party had called on him to step down. Many Liberals, some of them minorities, rallied around him, reflecting the reservoir of goodwill over his past support of diversity and immigration.

Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, a Liberal who is Sikh, said that what Trudeau did was wrong but that the prime minister has a record of standing up for minorities. Trudeau named Sajjan Canada’s first Sikh defense chief in 2015.

Greg Fergus, a Liberal Member of Parliament who is black, said there was a lot of confusion and hurt in the black community but noted that the prime minister apologized.

Fergus pointed out that it was Trudeau who put Viola Desmond, a black woman who refused to leave the whites-only section of a Canadian movie theater in 1944, on Canada’s $10 bill.

“I think the real measure of the man, and I think the thing we need to be talking about, is all the amazing things we have done for diversity,” Fergus said.

One accepts apology

Mitzie Hunter, a Liberal who is running to lead the party in Ontario provincial politics and is black, tweeted: “I know it is not representative of the man he is. This is a teachable moment for all of us. I accept his apology and I hope Canadians do too.”

The photo of Trudeau was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an “Arabian Nights” theme that year, Trudeau said. He said he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.”

The prime minister said it was not the first time he darkened his face: He once did it while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” during a talent show.

Global News also reported a third instance, broadcasting a brief video of Trudeau in blackface while raising his hands in the air and sticking out his tongue. A Liberal Party spokeswoman said the footage was from the early 1990s. The Canadian TV network said it was not clear where the tape was made.

Scheer said his campaign team received the video from a concerned citizen and passed it on to the media.

Latest in a string

Trudeau is the latest in a string of politicians to get in trouble over racially offensive photos and actions from their younger days.

Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced intense pressure to resign after a racist picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page. He denied being in the picture but admitted wearing blackface as a young man while portraying Michael Jackson at a dance party in the 1980s. Since then, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has acknowledged wearing blackface in college, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has apologized donning blackface during a college skit more than 50 years ago. None of them stepped down.

Trudeau has championed diversity, multiculturalism and immigration and has been admired by liberals around the world for his policies in the Trump era, with Canada accepting more refugees than the U.S. His government has also strongly advocated free trade and has legalized cannabis.

But the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was already vulnerable following one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when Trudeau’s former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the prosecution of a company in Quebec. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but the scandal rocked the government and led to resignations and a drop in his ratings earlier this year.

His quick apology over the yearbook photo did not stem the criticism from political opponents.

‘Deeply troubled’

“I am deeply troubled by what this means to Canada. Young kids are not just going to see just one or two but multiple images of the prime minister mocking their lived reality,” said Leftist New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is a Sikh. “This is so hurtful to so many Canadians.”

Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said he was “gobsmacked” by the development.

“That’s the kind of thing you do when you are a frat boy,” Bothwell said. “Maybe at 29 he had no idea that he was going to go on to greatness, but his father would have never done that.”

He added: “The case has never been conclusively made that Justin is a person of substance. I mean, he may well be. But that impression is just not out there.”

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said he doesn’t believe the photo will cause people to vote differently. Wiseman said race and blackface play a much bigger role in U.S. politics than in Canada.

“This is not the type of scandal that will drive voters to the Conservatives,” he said.

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