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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau makes a statement during a scrum on his campaign plane, in Halifax, N.S., on Sept. 18, 2019.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

In the hours and minutes before everything changed, the mood on Justin Trudeau’s campaign media bus was jovial.

The journalists covering the Liberal leader’s re-election bid were heading away from a rally at a candidate’s campaign office in Truro, N.S., where a crowd of supporters and fans had done what they’d been doing all week: waiting and waiting for the leader to arrive before swarming him for selfies, cellphones at the ready.

If Trudeau knew about the storm that was about to hit, he didn’t show it. He was all smiles and boundless energy, even spending more time than usual after his speech taking photos and shaking hands.

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When he was done, the media bus — one of two large motor coaches covered in giant photos of Trudeau — rolled out for the Halifax airport, where a plane was waiting to take the caravan west to Winnipeg.

All of a sudden, phones and laptops began to light up. Someone clicked on the story and read out the headline: “Justin Trudeau Wore Brownface at 2001 ‘Arabian Nights’ Party.”

“Oh my God, there’s a photo,” someone else exclaimed.

There he was, standing with four young women, in “brownface” makeup, a tall costume turban on his head. Younger, but it was him — no question. A consensus formed quickly: Trudeau would have to give a statement before leaving for Manitoba. Four hours of airborne radio silence was not going to be OK.

Two former communications staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office, now Liberal party campaign spokespeople, were also on the bus. Their sudden silence spoke volumes.

Cameron Ahmad, Trudeau’s chief spokesperson on the campaign tour, promised a statement shortly. His voice was sharp, his eyes glued to his phone. Meanwhile, the bus filled with the white newsroom noise of furious typing and phone calls to editors and producers, planning live hits from the airport tarmac.

Once there, Ahmad gave the word: Trudeau would scrum on the plane.

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RCMP dogs sniffed all the bags, a routine protocol that was now a time sink. In the darkness, faces glowed in the blue light of cellphones. As soon as security gave the go-ahead, reporters made a break for the plane; RCMP and airport workers shouted not to run under the wing.

When he finally emerged, it was no longer the grinning, energetic campaign Trudeau, but a slow, sombre version. He spoke quietly and deliberately, interrupted periodically by the din of shouted questions.

The only flash of frustration came when he was asked how he would explain things to his children.

“I’m going to have a conversation with them tomorrow morning before they go to school about taking responsibility for mistakes we make, about living every day to try to be a better person and recognizing that when you make mistakes, you have to take responsibility for it,” Trudeau said.

“You have to own up to it and you have to promise to do better. That’s what I expect of my kids, that’s how I’m raising them and that’s certainly the conversation I’ll have with them tomorrow.”

Before long, he was gone again. We had 45 minutes to file.

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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he deeply regrets wearing brownface at an “Arabian-Nights”-themed costume party at a private Vancouver school in 2001. Time magazine posted the yearbook photo from West Point Grey Academy, where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics.
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