Amidst the belly dancers, “Desert Breeze” drinks and “glittering trinkets” of the Arabian Nights gala of one of British Columbia’s top private schools was future prime minister Justin Trudeau, a teacher at the time, wearing an Aladdin costume that included brownface makeup.
It was 2001 and West Point Grey Academy teachers, staff and “friends“ were raising funds for the school, located in a prosperous part of west-side Vancouver, overlooking English Bay. A newsletter described the gala at a downtown hotel as an “outstanding” soiree that raised $160,000 to benefit the school.
Now that evening has sparked outrage in the midst of the campaign for the Oct. 21 federal election, with Mr. Trudeau apologizing for wearing racist makeup as part of his costume. Despite the controversy, some party guests remember a good time with no harm done.
“I recall thinking, ‘Wow – he’s really into it’ – but it wasn’t in a negative way,” Vancouver realtor Wayne Hamill, who attended the gala with his then-wife Vicki, said in an interview on Thursday.
“In the context of the party – if he had done the same thing without the blackface, if we can call it that, it would be nothing – it would just be a costume … I didn’t take any personal offence, I didn’t think there was anything racial about it, in the context of that it was an Arabian-themed party."
Mr. Hamill, who said he does not support Mr. Trudeau politically, says the future Liberal Leader, then 29, seemed to be enjoying himself. The existence of the photo has been known to staff, students and parents for years, Mr. Hamill said.
On Thursday, West Point Grey Academy said attitudes have shifted since the Arabian Nights event was held.
“Our 2001 gala event was organized by a culturally diverse group of parent volunteers and was intended to be celebratory and respectful,” said a statement issued by communications director Megan MacMillan.
“That said, we recognize cultural sensitivities have evolved over the past 18 years.”
Ms. MacMillan said the school tries to provide “progressive and inclusive” programming, activities and events.
Wendy Valdes, chair of West Point Grey Academy’s parent group at the time, said the private school organized a fundraising gala every year with a different theme. The Arabian Nights gala attracted a diverse group, she said, and she wore a sari.
“We all had costumes on,” the Langley, B.C., resident said in an exchange over Facebook. “I think people are trying to make something out of nothing.”
Everyone, she added, “loved Justin and the fun and energy he brought to our school.”
In his 2014 memoir, Common Ground, Mr. Trudeau writes of mixed feelings about his time at the school.
On one hand, he writes that it was great to be part of helping build the culture of the school, founded in 1996. However, he also writes that “sometimes my teaching methods put me at odds with the conservative West Point Grey administrators.”
According to its website, West Point Grey Academy was founded by four families intent on a “progressive, coeducational, independent day school” on the west side of Vancouver.
Now the school, whose website says it has about 940 students from junior kindergarten to Grade 12, operates in three academic buildings and two gymnasiums on a seven-hectare campus.
Mr. Trudeau spent 2½ years at the academy teaching French and math, but also occasionally drama, creative writing and law.
“Over all, I loved my time at West Point Grey. The students and the teachers were bright and engaging, and the great things about the school vastly outnumbered the challenges, even in the early years,” Mr. Trudeau wrote.
He says he aimed for an informality that included collaborative intellectual exercises in lessons such as math puzzles and brain teasers and efforts to help find the rhythms of poetry.
According to Mr. Trudeau, his time at the academy ended over “Wayne“ – a student who defied the school’s dress code by wearing his tie loose and dangling a chain from a belt. Mr. Trudeau says he encouraged “Wayne” to write about the dress code for the student newspaper.
The published article, according to Mr. Trudeau, noted female students were getting away with wearing skirts shorter than allowed by the dress code. The administration disciplined Wayne and ended the newspaper, actions that persuaded him to leave the school, Mr. Trudeau writes.