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A photo of Justin Trudeau during an Arabian Nights event gala while he teaching at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver. The image is from the April 2001 ViewPoint newsletter.ViewPoint, West Point Grey Academy Newsletter

There was absolutely no excuse for Justin Trudeau darkening his skin with makeup in 2001 as part of a costume. He said on Wednesday night that he now realizes the act was racist. He should have known it then.

But that is not the biggest problem. The biggest problem is that for 18 years, he kept silent about it. The offence lay not only in the act, but in the silence.

This election is about who voters should trust to lead this country in difficult times. How can they trust a leader who committed a racist act and then kept it hidden, hoping no one would find out?

Mr. Trudeau has a theatrical nature, and a fondness for colourful clothing, as we learned during his trip to India. “I’ve always ... been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” he half-joked to reporters on Wednesday night as he apologized for wearing brownface at an Arabian Nights-themed gala for the private school where he taught.

Trudeau apologizes for racist brownface photo from 2001, acknowledges second incident in high school

But he must have known in 2001 the deep offence of white people wearing blackface to mock people with darker skin. Remember, Mr. Trudeau was already a public figure when he put on that makeup; the year before, he had delivered a eulogy at his father’s funeral that had caught the nation’s attention.

There was plenty of time between 2001 and today for the Liberal Leader to acknowledge that in the past he had worn an offensive, racist costume, that he had acted thoughtlessly, but that life is a progress toward greater enlightenment. If he had done that, the photograph would have had much less impact.

But Mr. Trudeau is not one to apologize. He offered only a half-hearted apology when the Ethics Commissioner found he had violated the Conflict of Interest Act by taking a family vacation on the private island of the Aga Khan.

He has not apologized for attempting to influence the criminal prosecution on fraud and bribery charges of the engineering company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. – which led to the resignation of two cabinet ministers and which the Ethics Commissioner ruled was another violation of the act.

This time, of course, he had no choice but to apologize. “I should have known better, but I didn’t, and I’m really sorry,” he told reporters on Wednesday evening. But he never properly addressed the question of not acknowledging what he had done in the 18 years before being confronted with the photograph.

This is a leader who condemned Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer for a speech he gave in the House of Commons in 2005 opposing same-sex marriage. This is a party that has tried to centre this election campaign on inappropriate statements of some Conservative candidates on social media and elsewhere.

We all know that if a photo surfaced of a Tory candidate wearing that makeup, the Liberals would be baying to have them ejected from the campaign. If this photo were of any Liberal candidate other than the leader, that candidate would not be long for this political world.

“You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5.)

At the least, this furor will derail the Liberal campaign for several days. At the worst, it will permanently tarnish Mr. Trudeau’s reputation in the eyes of some voters. You should never have to ask of a prime minister: “What were you thinking?”

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that, by wearing brownface, Mr. Trudeau was “making a mockery" of people with darker skin. “What does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the colour of their skin, face obstacles and barriers and challenges in their life?”

That’s not an accusation you would have expected to be leveled at Justin Trudeau before Wednesday night.

“This is about me taking responsibility,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. No, it isn’t. It is about not taking responsibility, and then apologizing when you get caught.

All those years, when he could have told us himself, he didn’t. That is what he should be ashamed of. That is what voters need to think about.