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Justin Trudeau’s Blackface Incidents

Perhaps the greatest controversy of the 2019 federal election emerged around images of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in blackface. On 18 September 2019–one week into the election period–Time Magazine published a set of photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing blackface makeup and a turban twenty years prior. In a subsequent press conference, the Prime Minister admitted to a second incident in which he donned blackface makeup and sang “Day-O” –-a Jamaican folk song. In his apology, Trudeau asserted that he “didn’t think it was racist at the time.”The next day, Global News reported a third incident in which he wore blackface while sticking out his tongue and raising his arms.

Image of Justin Trudeau from 2001 via: CBC (Wikimedia)

Blackface originated in the nineteenth century where actors would darken their skin for racist and disparaging performances. The centuries-long history of blackface makeup is closely associated with its use in “minstrel shows” which mocked and diminished the impacts of slavery. Historical opposition to the use of blackface and to the tradition of minstrel shows is well-documented. In the 1840s in Toronto, for example, Black residents of Toronto lobbied municipal officials to prohibit such performances. Blackface use was considered racist for more than a century prior to the incidents in which Trudeau was involved.

The images were seen to mar Trudeau’s political brand which has historically revolved around progressive values and inclusion. When the images surfaced, then-Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer used the opportunity to question the Prime Minister’s “moral authority” to continue as leader of the Liberal Party.

Similarly, New Democratic Party Leader, Jagmeet Singh, noted that the photos spoke to a greater issue of the dismissal of racism faced by Canadians. The Liberal Party campaign was tasked with delivering an apology to Canadians in order to address the scandal. 

A poll by Ipsos taken shortly after the photos were published found that 76 percent of respondents had seen the photos. The incident contributed to a three percent drop in support for the Liberal Party (leading to a four point lead for the Conservative Party). The photos damaged Trudeau’s credibility as a political leader. In a column, long-time political strategist and antiracism advocate Warren Kinsella wrote: “At the end of this shocking revelation, we are left with one thought: this is not the face of a Prime Minister.” 

Public responses to the photos drew a mix of support and condemnation for Trudeau. Comments in defence of Trudeau often attributed his actions to his privileged upbringing or his age when the photos were taken. Similarly, supporters justified his actions, noting the Prime Minister’s perceived support for multiculturalism. In contrast, others criticised Trudeau’s actions, arguing that the photos were indicative of white privilege and as representative of the Liberal Party’s broader failures to address racism. In an effort to justify the photos, the Liberal campaign publicised supportive comments from Liberal Members of Parliament who identified as members of visible minorities. Prominent members of the Liberal Party held press conferences in which they publicly forgave Trudeau, and highlighted his previous statements and policies with respect to multiculturalism.

The incident thwarted the momentum which Trudeau’s team had built in the first days of the election campaign. In his press conferences, Trudeau was forced to address the scandal, rather than promote his re-election campaign. In order to manage the breaking issue, a number of campaign events were cancelled.

On 16 October 2019, nearly a month after the photos were published, former United States President, Barack Obama, tweeted his endorsement of the Trudeau campaign. Popular amongst Canadians, Obama’s endorsement offered legitimacy to Trudeau in the final week of the election campaign. A poll taken on the day prior to the endorsement found the Liberal Party behind the Conservative Party by 0.6 percent, which justified unconventional actions to regain public support. 

After rebuilding public support in the final weeks of the election campaign, Trudeau’s Liberal Party was able to form government, albeit as a minority. Trudeau’s image prior to and during the campaign had been damaged by scandals including the SNC Lavalin affair, the Prime Minister’s trip to India, and the resignation of Celina Caesar-Chavannes. The multiple instances of misconduct contributed to the decline in the Prime Minister’s popularity, which manifested as the loss of a majority position in the House of Commons. 

The incident contributed to a larger debate regarding accountability for political leaders. Similar to Trudeau, Ralph Northam, Governor of the State of Virginia, was criticized for participating in a university yearbook photo which involved people in blackface and Ku Klux Klan robes. Mark Herring, Attorney General of Virginia was forced to apologize for wearing blackface to a party in the 1980s. Each incident fuelled discussions regarding the standards for elected officials and consequences for past actions. Ultimately, political ramifications for many individuals have been limited. In each case, the officials apologized for their actions, which they often attributed to youthful ignorance. Similar to Trudeau, Northam and Herring were defended by their non-white colleagues. As of 2021, all three of the aforementioned individuals continue to hold public office.

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Contributors: Muhammed Iqbal, Jonathan Lee, Braedon McDonald, Tooba Zulifiqar