Politics Briefing

September 22, 2019

Politics Briefing: Will Trudeau lose support for past racist photos?
  Politics Briefing: Will Trudeau lose support for past racist photos? - Also: Trudeau faces voters at Saskatoon town hall

Chris Hannay


Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has endured two days of questions and criticisms about his decision, made multiple times in his teens and 20s, to don brownface and blackface. Mr. Trudeau went further in his apology yesterday, accepting the actions were racist. And he said he doesn’t know exactly how many times he did it, because he didn’t realize for some time just how offensive the actions were.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Canadians of colour were feeling a lot of hurt and a lot of shame by the pictures of their Prime Minister before he was prime minister. The images reverberated around the world, especially in the U.S., where American political leaders have been caught up in blackface scandals, and it threatens Mr. Trudeau’s carefully crafted image as a global progressive icon.

But to what degree will Mr. Trudeau pay a price at the polls? We will see. The Globe canvassed voters in Mr. Trudeau’s riding, who said the scandal isn’t likely to influence whether they’ll support him one way or another. And so far his fellow Liberals are rallying around him, saying past indiscretions do not discredit a man who, they say, has made progress for Canadians of colour. “He made a mistake, he realized that and he has taken responsibility," Montreal MP Emmanuel Dubourg said. "We can’t have a better ally than Justin Trudeau to work for diversity and tolerance, so I’m with him.”

And then there is Sunny Khurana, a man who was posing with Mr. Trudeau in one of the photos. Mr. Khurana was a parent of one of the students at the 2001 private-school gala. He is also Sikh and wears a turban. “We never felt he was trying to look down on anybody or he was demeaning to anybody,” he said in an interview. “It never came across like that.”

This is the daily Politics Briefing newsletter, written by Chris Hannay, with reports from Bill Curry and Xiao Xu. It is available exclusively to our digital subscribers. If you’re reading this on the web, subscribers can sign up for the Politics newsletter and more than 20 others on our newsletter signup page. Have any feedback? Let us know what you think.


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Michelle Zilio has been with the Liberal campaign all week. Here’s her dispatch from last night’s town hall in Saskatoon:

Justin Trudeau was met with both frustration and forgiveness in Saskatoon Thursday night, a day after photos and video of him in brownface and blackface rocked the Liberal election campaign.

Standing in the middle of a hotel ballroom surrounded by hundreds of spectators, Mr. Trudeau took questions from audience members in a town-hall style event. Mr. Trudeau only faced one critical question about the two photos and one video, which date from the 1980s to 2001: a man asked the Liberal leader to clearly say how many times he has worn racist makeup.

“I’ll make it easy – is it possible to round to the nearest five?” said the man, who did not identify himself.

Mr. Trudeau declined to directly answer the question, instead repeating his apology and saying “there is no way to sugar-coat it.”

The microphone then made its way to another audience member, who asked Mr. Trudeau not to apologize – a comment that was met with applause in the room.

“When they have this debate, let’s not go back digging up bones, 15 years [old],” the man said.

Indigenous leader David Pratt also told Mr. Trudeau he accepts his apology, which again was followed by clapping.

Many of the questions Thursday night were focused on First Nations issues, including missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, mental health and water access.

The event was originally scheduled to be a Liberal rally before the party changed it to a public town hall following the release of the racist photos and video.


The revelation that Mr. Trudeau had worn brownface and blackface in the past has generated considerable commentary in Canada and around the world. Here’s a sampling.

Elamin Abdelmahmoud (The Globe and Mail): “Mr. Trudeau’s second apology was, admittedly, more thorough than the first. But there were still cringe-worthy moments – where awkward, unidentified applause erupted, off-camera, when Mr. Trudeau said he came here today to ‘ask for forgiveness.’ Whether or not he can earn that remains to be seen, especially when he refuses to answer the most important question: Why?”

Campbell Clark (The Globe and Mail): “That’s a jarring thought: The Justin Trudeau you never expected to see in blackface can’t remember how many times he did it. Who is this guy?”

Radiyah Chowdhury (Chatelaine): “Trudeau’s apologies reminded me how reality is very different for white people. When the ‘brownface’ photo was taken, Trudeau was 29. That means he was a grown man when he made the decision to go out of his way to find dark makeup/paint, spend time applying it to his face, arms and hands, and then appear in public and pose for photos. He was a grown man who thought, ‘Huh, this seems like a good idea,’ The lived reality of actual black and brown people did not occur to this—and I cannot emphasize it enough—grown man.”

Vanmala Subramaniam (National Post): “But let this sink in: not just once, but at multiple points in his life, our prime minister felt it was comical to imitate people of colour, to use our hair, our skin as a costume. At multiple times, our prime minister, who grew up with the privilege of travelling the world and having access to any piece of literature he could get his hands on, thought absolutely nothing of painting his face black or brown, ignoring the violent history of Orientalism and racial subjugation.”

Mark Kingwell (The Globe and Mail): “Personally, I’m with Aristotle. The Greek philosopher taught us that your actions are your character. What you do is who you are. There is no escape hatch from that, just a deep and never-ending responsibility. Who you are today is who you were yesterday. We may forgive, but we never forget. Saying you ‘take responsibility’ does not alter the record.”

Vicky Mochama (Washington Post): “By all accounts, none of the white party leaders are avowed racists (except [Maxime] Bernier, who dabbles). But that’s not the actual standard for political power. It’s not about who has or hasn’t used racial slurs, but about who can and will govern in direct opposition to racism. It’s a relatively new standard in Canadian politics — but it applies.”

John Ibbitson (The Globe and Mail): “[NDP Leader Jagmeet] Singh’s sincerity is beyond question. But though it will seem cynical, the revelation Justin Trudeau repeatedly wore blackface and brownface while dressing up in costumes when he was younger is almost certain to boost the fortunes of the NDP in this election campaign, not least because Mr. Singh is the first person of colour to lead a national political party in Canada.”

Fatima Syed (National Observer): “Like it or not, the 2019 federal election has always been about race, but as quickly as it comes up, it’s been swept away or worse: it’s been left hanging in a void of no accountability.”

Trevor Noah (Daily Show): “With the Canadian election just one month away, many are wondering if this blackface scandal is going to hurt Trudeau’s chances of being re-elected. To be honest, I’m just sad to see another black man being brought down.”


  • Conservatives: 37 per cent
  • Liberals: 34 per cent
  • NDP: 13 per cent
  • Green: 9 per cent
  • Bloc: 4 per cent
  • People’s Party: 2 per cent
Analysis from Nik Nanos: “Conservatives have a marginal advantage over Liberals while the NDP and Greens are more than 20 points behind the two front-runners.”

The survey was conducted by Nanos Research and was sponsored by The Globe and Mail and CTV. 1,200 Canadians were surveyed between Sept. 17 and 19, 2019. The margin of error is 2.8 percentage points, 19 times out of 20. Respondents were asked: “If a federal election were held today, could you please rank your top two current local voting preferences?” A report on the results, questions and methodology for this and all surveys can be found at https://tgam.ca/election-polls.


Thousands of students are leaving their classes as part of a strike to draw attention to a meeting of world leaders in New York next week to tackle climate change.

Third-party groups, such as Canada Proud, have begun to file financial reports with Elections Canada, giving some sense of where the groups are getting their money and how they are spending it. So far unions have been the biggest spenders on ads either attacking the Conservatives or supporting the NDP. The biggest non-union group is Canada Proud, which has received a significant chunk of their funding from businessman Ronald Mannix, his holding company and an association representing contractors.

B.C.'s auditor-general has found serious problems in how the legislature approves expenses, months after allegations involving the chamber’s Speaker came to light.

And Jody Wilson-Raybould, a Vancouver MP who left the Liberal cabinet and caucus earlier this year during the SNC-Lavalin affair, has released a book during the campaign, where she is seeking re-election as an independent. The book avoids that scandal and instead provides what she says are solutions to fixing Canada’s “colonial” Indian Act. “I am hopeful that this book will contribute to some of that discussion, of course leading up to the election, but more importantly, [to] try to move beyond partisanship and address this issue in a major way,” Ms. Wilson-Raybould told The Globe.

Caro Loutfi (The Globe and Mail) on engaging youth in the election: “Placing youth in decision-making roles and involving us in decision-making spaces leads to increased engagement and innovation and allows for intergenerational learning. Don’t write us off by thinking we don’t care, or that we’re all the same. When people realize that youth care, candidates will start asking us to participate, parties will ask us to consider running for office and the diverse cohort of young Canadians will finally be reflected in our policies, governments and institutions.”

Sarah Lazarovic (The Globe and Mail) on letting your employees join the climate strike: “A growing number of people in today’s work force – particularly millennials – say they want their workplace to reflect their values, and smart employers will recognize this. Many already offer cold-pressed juices and free lunchtime yoga. Why not the chance to stop environmental catastrophe?”

David Parkinson (The Globe and Mail) on the fallacy of chasing voters with pocketbook promises: “Of course, none of these campaign proposals will do much to help Canada as a nation lift itself out of the consumer debt hole it has dug over the past decade. What indebted households ultimately need is a strong, stable, growing economy that will fuel healthy, sustained income growth, coupled with redistributive tax policies that will assure that this income is shared equitably. It will take comprehensive long-term planning on innovation, infrastructure, skills development, immigration.”

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