MONTREAL – Racism or youthful indiscretion? Images published one week into Canada’s general election showing Justin Trudeau in blackface mark a low point in his political career, but it’s not clear if they’ve caused grievous harm to his re-election bid, experts say.
“Both in Canada and abroad, this affair has tarnished Justin Trudeau’s image that was carefully crafted by his Liberal Party as standing up for diversity and tolerance,” said Stephanie Chouinard, a politics professor at the Royal Military College in Kingston, Ontario.
“It’s a big blow.”
Three separate images of the Canadian leader in blackface makeup decades ago were published a month before Canadians go to the polls on Oct. 21, with the Liberals in a tight race against the Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer.
A fervent advocate of multiculturalism, the 47-year-old son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau — who is considered the father of modern Canada — apologized publicly for the blunders from his teens and 20s.
“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” Trudeau said. “I should have understood that then and I never should have done it.”
The blackface photographs and video footage were taken of Trudeau at a high school talent contest belting out a Harry Belafonte hit, at a party with fellow rafting guides in the early 1990s and at an “Arabian Nights”-themed event at a school where he taught 18 years ago.
They quickly went viral, particularly in the United States where blackface is considered openly racist in mainstream culture. President Donald Trump said Friday he was surprised by the images — and “more surprised when I saw the number of times.”
Blackface dates back to about 1830 when white performers caked their faces in greasepaint or shoe polish and drew on exaggerated lips in a caricature of blacks as somehow inferior, ignorant, lazy and even animalistic.
“The image of Trudeau as a leftist icon will be especially harmed in the United States,” McGill University politics professor Daniel Beland said.
Some Canadians have expressed disappointment with Trudeau’s behavior but said the scandal would not affect their voting intentions. Supporters pointed to his record of progressivism while others say social and pocketbook issues drive this election.
“We’ll have to wait for the next polls to come out to judge if this scandal has had an impact,” said Beland.
Chouinard noted that the blackface images could turn off young voters, who turned out in droves to support Trudeau’s 2015 election run and “who are more in tune with acceptable norms today.”
“Canadians (in general) may be more forgiving,” said a Globe and Mail editorial, concluding that “the Liberal Party’s fortunes depend on it.”
Trudeau took the Liberal Party from third place to a landslide victory in 2015, and has since resettled tens of thousands of Syrian refugees, legalized cannabis, introduced gender parity to cabinet and made strides in improving the lives of indigenous peoples.
But on Wednesday a contrite Trudeau apologized for his “racist” makeup missteps, telling a televised news conference that he deeply regretted the hurt it caused.
“Repenting was his only option,” said Chouinard. “He could have said that blackface wasn’t really known in Canada at the time, but he would have appeared to be skirting responsibility.”
Trudeau said he hadn’t understood at the time “how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day.”
It showed, according to his detractors, a “lack of judgment,” a blissful ignorance which could be used to challenge his fitness to lead the country.
“It will hurt his image, but it remains to be seen whether or not it will significantly impact the election results,” Beland said.
Glad-handing and taking selfies with Canadians in Toronto and Winnipeg in recent days, a smiling Trudeau received a hearty, hospitable reception.