Elamin Abdelmahmoud is a writer based in Toronto.
Justin Trudeau is no stranger to apologies. Over the past four years, he has apologized for a long list of historical wrongdoings, from residential schools to Canada’s treatment of LGBTQ civil servants.
His apologies of late have taken a much different – and rare – tone. In two press conferences in two days, he apologized for what he personally did.
Mr. Trudeau delivered his first unequivocal apology on his campaign plane regarding the racist photos and video that have recently surfaced: “I’m pissed off at myself,” he said – and claimed he’ll be seeking the forgiveness of Canadians. He said he’s shown how he’s learned and grown in his understanding of racism: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do.”
The follow-up questions from the press gallery left a lot to be desired. Yes, the question on the plane was “How do you feel about this coming out in the campaign?” That was covered.
But there were a lot of questions unasked.
Why did Mr. Trudeau think it was okay at the time?
For a leader who has prided himself on his honesty, why, in the first apology, did he use the word “makeup” and not call it what it was – blackface and brownface?
When did he realize this was a racist act?
Does he understand the history of blackface?
Can he explain, precisely, why it was racist? As a Prime Minister who had made a point of talking about race in office, what was his thinking in not talking about it for the past four years?
What is his responsibility in communicating to Canadians that it’s not okay?
Those questions came to mind simultaneously. Something that became immediately apparent to me: If there had been five or six journalists of colour on that plane, who are used to dissecting the anatomy of racism and comfortable asking these questions, perhaps they would have come up.
In his second apology press conference, on Thursday, there was a moment when the Liberal Leader was asked – repeatedly, by separate journalists – if there were any other videos or photos that are yet to come to light. Another journalist asked him how he couldn’t have known, in 2001, that this was racist.
He avoided those questions.
The questions need answers. They are important because they frame the apologies Mr. Trudeau has delivered. The Liberal Leader has a habit of saying the right words – “systemic discrimination,” “anti-black racism,” “I come from a place of privilege,” “I am an ally," etc. Perhaps journalists of colour would’ve been able to push harder to probe whether saying the right words translates to understanding them, too. Without answering those questions, voters don’t have enough information to decide whether Mr. Trudeau’s contrition is sufficient to consider the subject dealt with.
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?
Reporters did a better job of probing Mr. Trudeau’s answers, too, having had an extra day to get to the questions that matter.
Before the bombshell that hit Wednesday evening, there was another photo, from Toronto Star journalist Tonda MacCharles; she took it on the Liberal Leader’s plane as the campaign began. A bunch of smiling journalists ready to hit the campaign trail, all appearing to be white.
The photo received attention because it was a reflection of a stark reality: Canada’s newsrooms are predominantly white. The thing is, some people understand that criticism to be largely theoretical. But as the story broke – two photos and a video of Mr. Trudeau in brownface and blackface – and the news media had a chance to hold the Liberal Leader to account, it was glaringly obvious that the press plane needed journalists of colour.
“We have much more to do... There is still a lot of work to be done,” Mr. Trudeau said stoically on Thursday. He’s not wrong about that.
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