TORONTO -- It’s too soon to say whether photos of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface and brownface will cost him the election, but advocates say the controversy should spark a broader conversation about systemic racism in Canada.

Trudeau has apologized for the photos, which he called racist, and said that his track record as a politician shows he is an ardent supporter of diversity.

On a deeper level, the controversy points to systemic racism in Canada, according to activist and journalist Desmond Cole, who has written extensively on anti-black racism in Canada.

Cole highlighted the fact that no one at the 2001 event took issue with Trudeau’s Aladdin costume at an “Arabian Nights” themed dinner.

One party attendee, Wayne Hamill, who is white, told The Canadian Press that he doesn't recall anyone expressing offence over Trudeau's dark makeup. Sunny Khurana, a parent who appeared in the photo with Trudeau, then a teacher, said he doesn’t view the costume as racist.

“Grown adults in all these different places he was doing this were also OK with it. He was a teacher teaching children and he went to a party like this and none of this peers thought there was anything wrong with what he was doing. That really says something about our country,” Cole said.

Sonia Kang, a professor of organizational behaviour and HR management with the University of Toronto, said she believes Trudeau when he says that, at the time, he didn’t consider the costumes racist.

“But I think the fact that someone like Justin Trudeau, (who) grew up the son of a prime minister, could not know that as racist really speaks to how systemic and entrenched racism really is within our society. And I think that’s what we really need to talk about,” Kang said.

She also raised concerns about the timing of the photos, which surfaced on day eight of the election campaign. Kang said the photos are now being used as a political fodder.

“It’s a commodification of outrage. It’s a commodification of our morality. And that in itself is also racist,” she said.

“It’s trying to use people as pawns to move them around, to get them outraged, to get them thinking about this issue at a time now rather than focusing on the fact that this exists all the time. It’s not just during election time that people are racist.”

Cole described Trudeau’s past behaviour is “blatant racism.” As for the political fallout, he said conversations around strategic voting are unproductive.

“We have to stop doing this thing where we tell people of colour to shut up in a moment like this and to just vote for Justin anyway because if we don’t we’re going to get Andrew Scheer,” he said.

“I have to live as a black person in this country with this racist climate that allows Justin Trudeau to get this high in life without ever being told you’re being racist, without ever really being checked. That’s the country I have to live in no matter who wins the election.”

On Thursday, Trudeau reached out to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh “expressing a desire to talk,” Trudeau’s campaign team said. The NDP leader said he is open to having a conversation but refuses to be part of any “PR campaign” to exonerate Trudeau.

Cole said Trudeau shouldn’t put that onus on Singh.

“It’s not up to anybody, particularly a person of colour, to forgive Justin Trudeau,” Cole said.

“What he wants is … to use a person of colour and say, ‘Will you forgive me? Will you help me move on?’ instead of taking responsibility for what he’s done and going away.”


But there are other race-related issues that aren’t getting as much attention this election, Kang said, such as Bill 21 in Quebec.

The measure, passed by Quebec’s CAQ government with popular support, bans some public workers, such as teachers and police officers, from wearing religious symbols, such as turbans or hijabs, at work.

The Conservatives have said they wouldn’t attempt to scrap the law. Trudeau has been more vague, saying his government might intervene but that doing so would be “counter-productive.”

Singh has ardently spoken out against Bill 21 and released a political ad earlier this month showing him without a turban as he discussed how proud he is of his identity.

“Every party, in truth, is using that as a way to gain ground in Quebec. No one is going to stand up and fight for the rights of those people because it’s useful to them,” Kang said.

“So I think all of these conversations that need to be happening are being forgotten because of how salacious these images are. People are getting caught up in is he racist, is he not racist, how do you feel, how does this person feel, and that’s really a distraction from the real issues. “

Cole said that, no matter what happens on Oct. 21, he’ll continue fighting racism in Canada.

“I’m going to keep fighting racism no matter who the prime minister is and I’d like to hear that attitude from people instead of telling us we have to settle for a racist prime minister like Justin.”

With files CTV’s Rachel Aiello and The Canadian Press