Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau admitted Wednesday that he twice dressed up in racist makeup, and apologized for a practice he says he now knows is wrong.
“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better but I didn’t and I’m really sorry,” Mr. Trudeau said in a Halifax press conference on his campaign plane.
“I didn’t consider it a racist action at the time but now we know better. And this was something that was unacceptable and, yes, racist.”
Time magazine published a yearbook photograph on Wednesday showing Mr. Trudeau in brownface when he was 29. Mr. Trudeau said he dressed up in an Aladdin costume and wore “makeup” at an Arabian Nights-themed gala in 2001 at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver. The event was held by the private school where he was a teacher.
He avoided using the term brownface, but the 18-year-old photo shows him with his face, neck and hands painted brown and wearing a turban and robes. Mr. Trudeau also admitted that he wore “makeup” in high school when he performed the Jamaican folk tune Banana Boat Song.
The controversy comes one week into a five-week election campaign in which Mr. Trudeau is asking voters for a second term in government.
The Liberals have made the social-media history of other parties’ candidates a major issue in the first eight days of the campaign and have called for several Conservative candidates to be ousted.
Mr. Trudeau suggested to reporters that public perceptions about the practice have changed since he dressed in brownface in 2001 − an assertion El Jones, a lecturer at Saint Mary’s University, called “ludicrous.”
“Justin Trudeau may not have been aware that this was racist 20 years ago, but certainly people who are affected by it have been well aware for centuries,” Ms. Jones said.
Mr. Trudeau’s apology was criticized by his former colleague Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who left the Liberal caucus earlier this year.
“The privilege continues. There is no excuse for this. Apology is a first step. You should be aware of the history of #blackface and racism in this country and others. Apparently #diversityisourstrength? Deeply disappointed,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said.
Dressing in blackface or brownface has a long and painful history. The racist practice is often used to portray people through “degrading and dehumanizing stereotypes,” Ms. Jones said.
Mr. Trudeau said he has been making calls to colleagues to apologize for his actions and chart a course forward, but said it’s not cause for him to resign.
“I’m going to be asking Canadians to forgive me,” he said.
One of the people Mr. Trudeau called Wednesday was Liberal candidate Omar Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family. In an interview Wednesday night, Mr. Alghabra said the Liberal Leader apologized and asked for his advice.
“I told him to be upfront and to own the mistake,” said Mr. Alghabra, who acknowledged being upset and concerned by the photo, but also ready to forgive.
“As disappointing as it is, it’s not that hard for me to get over it, because I’ve seen him act in public and in private and I’ve seen what he’s done for many people who are marginalized or being victimized by stereotypes or racism.”
Canada is in its first election campaign in which one of the main parties is being led by a person who is a racial minority. NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh is a turbaned Sikh, who took the helm of the party two years ago.
After seeing the picture of Mr. Trudeau at the 2001 event, Mr. Singh made a statement where he expressed the pain and hurt that many visible minorities feel when they see this imagery.
“The people that see this image are going to think about all of the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” Mr. Singh said in Mississauga.
Before seeing the actual picture, Mr. Singh said dressing up in blackface or brownface makes a “mockery” of racialized people who, because of the colour of their skin, “face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their life.”
Mr. Singh said the picture shows a “pattern of behaviour” from the Liberal Leader. “We see one Mr. Trudeau in public, that I’ll be honest with you seems really nice, very friendly, very warm in public, but behind closed doors, he seems like a different Mr. Trudeau.”
The NDP Leader pointed to Mr. Trudeau’s comment at a fundraiser to First Nations protesters where he thanked them for their donation when they were escorted out for protesting. “Who is the real Mr. Trudeau?” Mr. Singh asked.
Ms. Jones said Mr. Singh’s presence in the campaign puts Mr. Trudeau’s use of the racist makeup in stark context. During the campaign, Mr. Singh has been faced with questions about whether Canadians are ready to vote for a party led by a leader wearing a turban.
“Racialized people are constantly faced with these stereotypes and have to prove that they are not those stereotypes, whereas white people can put on these costumes and stereotypes for fun,” Ms. Jones said.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said he is “extremely shocked and disappointed” by the revelations.
“Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country,” Mr. Scheer said from Sherbrooke.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims had earlier called on Mr. Trudeau to make a “complete apology” for the “reprehensible” picture.
“While we recognize that this picture was taken many years ago and that people can evolve and change, it is critically important that the Prime Minister apologize for taking part in blackface and commits to doing better in the future,”said Mustafa Farooq, the association’s executive director.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said she is “deeply shocked by the racism” shown in the picture. “He must apologize for the harm done and commit to learning and appreciating the requirement to model social justice leadership at all levels of government. In this matter he has failed,” she said on Twitter.
Mr. Trudeau said he’s “pissed off” at himself and disappointed in his past actions.
With a report from The Canadian Press