Members of Canada’s Liberal Party responded to the revelation Thursday that their leader, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, has worn blackface more times than he can remember by insisting that he is respectful of minorities in private and deserves forgiveness.
Time magazine published an image late Wednesday of Trudeau in “brownface” – dark face paint meant to mock Middle Eastern complexions – at an “Arabian nights” theme party in 2001. Trudeau apologized for the image and confessed he had also worn blackface to perform “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” in high school. By Thursday morning, a video of Trudeau on an unrelated occasion wearing blackface had surfaced; Trudeau later told reporters he could not offer a definitive number of times that he had donned racist face paint because he did not remember them all.
During that press conference, David Akin from Global News, the outlet that published the blackface video, urged Trudeau to resign.
“I know there’ll be a lot of people here today of all races who will be very happy to hear you denounce racism in all its form and your earlier behavior. But the Prime Minister’s job was not created so you could work through your issues,” Akin said. “Maybe it’s time that you realize you’re not the indispensable man. … Have you considered asking someone else to lead the party in this election?”
Trudeau refused the offer to resign.
“I spent the morning speaking with candidates with fellow liberals with allies with leaders within racialized communities across the country and I will continue to do the work that is necessary,” the prime minister replied. “To keep us moving forward in the right way, Canadians have an important choice to make.”
Responding to another question, Trudeau said he felt that “you need to take responsibility for mistakes that hurt people who I thought was an ally,” but at press time has not specified what consequences he believes he should face for multiple instances of flagrant racism.
Those around Trudeau have supported his decision to accept no consequences for wearing blackface on multiple occasions. Canada’s Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, the first Sikh person to hold that office, said in a statement that he believed Trudeau had “sincerely apologized” and should be judged by his “actions,” as “he stands up for diversity and demonstrated his commitment to an inclusive and accepting Canada.”
“Think about it this way, he gave me the responsibility to be the minister of national defence, one of the most powerful institutions in our society,” Sajjan said in other remarks. “A person has to be genuine when he gives responsibility like that.”
Randeep Sarai, a Liberal Party MP from Surrey Centre, expressed similar difficulty in equating the man in blackface with his boss.
“Everything I’ve seen whether it’s been behind closed doors, in public in private, in non-official settings, is a Justin Trudeau that is very tolerant,” Sarai told CTV. “I don’t think anyone else has ever done [an apology] as sincere as he has in a situation like this.”
Liberal Party candidates running alongside Trudeau in the October 21 national election stood by their prime minister while attempting to condemn his behavior sufficiently.
“I was very disturbed and disappointed by the images of Justin Trudeau I saw last night,” Rob Oliphant, an MP for Don Valley West, wrote on Twitter. “I listened to his apology and accept it as sincere and unequivocal. … He is the best leader for Canada.”
Salma Zahid, an MP for Scarborough Centre, tweeted, “I stand with the Prime Minister as we all try to do better.”
“He is deeply committed to building a more diverse Canada, one where all Canadians feel accepted and valued,” her statement read, adding that she understood that the prime minister wearing blackface would cause “sadness and disappointment.”
The CBC found indigenous Canadian leaders torn on calling for his resignation. At least one, former Northwest Territories Premier Stephen Kakfwi, did call for Trudeau to resign, urging him to be “man enough to say, ‘there is real consequences [sic] to holding views and taking actions like this.'”
“Saying you’re sorry doesn’t cut it,” he added.
Yet another indigenous leader, Tlicho Grand Chief George Mackenzie, shrugged the scandal off, telling the outlet, “everyone makes mistakes.”
Leaders of rival parties in the October election have condemned the blackface videos but stopped short of telling the Liberal Party how to move forward.
“Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism,” Andrew Scheer, the head of the Conservative Party, said. “It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. What Canadians saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this county.”
Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the left-wing New Democrat Party, used the occasion to embrace Canadians of color and reflect on his own experiences with racism.
“Imagine what that would feel like if you’ve gone through pain in your life, if you’ve been treated differently, if you’ve faced insults, if you’ve faced physical violence because of the way you look, if you’ve been treated differently by the police, if you’ve faced systemic barriers – and then to see the prime minister making light of that. How would someone feel living in this country? I can tell you that it hurts,” Singh said. “I think there will be an impact on people’s decisions in this campaign in relation to what Mr. Trudeau has shown himself to be in public and now what we have seen in his private life.”