Trudeau says images of him in blackface and brownface 'unacceptable,' unsure if there are more
OTTAWA – Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says the three separate instances of him dressed in brownface or blackface that have emerged in the last day are "absolutely unacceptable," though he could not be "definitive" about how many times he's done it.
The visuals coming to light have thrown the party's re-election campaign into major damage-control mode, with Trudeau admitting that he had not told anyone before about the past actions because he was "embarrassed."
When asked whether more images or videos like that would emerge, Trudeau said he was "wary of being definitive," because he "had not remembered" every instance that has surfaced.
"How can you not remember that?" he asked. "The fact is, I didn't understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day."
"What I did… hurt people who shouldn't have to face intolerance and discrimination because of their identity, this is something that I deeply, deeply regret," Trudeau said in a live public address from Winnipeg on Thursday afternoon.
The bombshell news is dominating the conversation on the campaign trail, with 32 days until Canadians head to the polls.
"Darkening your face regardless of the context or circumstances is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface," Trudeau said, recognizing what he called as his "layers of privilege" that he said contributed him to not understanding at the time how deeply offensive his actions were at the time.
Already his political opponents are questioning Trudeau's leadership, saying he has "a lot to answer for" over what appears to be, as NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh put it, "an ongoing pattern of behaviour."
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is criticizing Trudeau for not coming clean about everything when he was first asked Wednesday night, and admitted his campaign played a role in one video coming to light.
How these images, video came out
First, Trudeau apologized late Wednesday night for wearing brownface makeup at a party in 2001, after TIME Magazine published a photo from the event. The photo shows Trudeau with dark makeup on his face, neck, and hands.
TIME Magazine reported that the photo appeared in the 2000-2001 yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private day school in Vancouver where Trudeau was a teacher at the time.
The photo was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an "Arabian Nights" theme, and Trudeau has acknowledged that he was dressed as Aladdin. Trudeau was nearly 30 years old when the photo was taken.
CTV News then confirmed a second photo of Trudeau from the "Arabian Nights" dinner. The photo was in the high school’s newsletter "View Point," in April 2001. It shows Trudeau in the same Aladdin costume, with his arms around two men in turbans.
CTV News has confirmed that this is a second photo of Justin Trudeau at the 'Arabian Nights' Gala, seen in the April 2001 West Point Grey Academy newsletter titled 'View Point.'
"I shouldn't have done that. I should have known better but I didn't and I'm really sorry," Trudeau told reporters inside his campaign plane, on the tarmac in Halifax Wednesday night. "It was a dumb thing to do. I'm disappointed in myself. I'm pissed off at myself for having done it. I wish I hadn't done it, but I did it and I apologize for it."
Trudeau also admitted that he "dressed up at a talent show and sang Day-O. With makeup on," while he was in high school, referring to a Jamaican folk song called "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)."
Late Wednesday, CTV News confirmed an image from the Montreal high school incident, printed in his Brebeuf College yearbook.
On the left, an image obtained by TIME magazine shows an image of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing brownface makeup at a party in 2001. On the right, an image confirmed by CTV News shows Justin Trudeau in blackface during a highschool performance at Brebeuf College.
Then on Thursday morning the Liberal campaign confirmed that there was also a video dated to the early 1990s showing Trudeau wearing blackface.
After Wednesday night's apology and admission of past racist acts, Trudeau said he will be asking Canadians to forgive him, and knows he has hard work ahead to demonstrate that he takes responsibility.
Trudeau called leaders in different ethnic communities across Canada to apologize, as well as made calls to friends, colleagues, and his candidates, many of whom are people of colour.
One of the big outstanding questions is why these images and the video have just emerged now. Seemingly hidden in plain sight, it remains unclear how these decades-old visuals did not come up when he was being vetted as the candidate for Papineau, Que. in 2008, when he was elected to be leader of the Liberal Party in 2013, during the 2015 federal campaign that saw his party rise from third place to a majority government, or at any point over the last for years as prime minister.
Scheer camp leaked video
Trudeau was questioned Wednesday night about how these developments about his past could square with the fact that the Liberal war room has been going after Conservative candidates for weeks, pointing out past racist, homophobic, and anti-abortion comments. Scheer has said that as long as someone takes responsibility and apologizes, he'd accept that.
Scheer wasn't willing to offer the same forgiveness to his opponent Wednesday night, nor Thursday morning while speaking in Quebec.
"I believe that Canadians might have been able to accept his apology if he had have been truthful and open, if he hadn't based that apology on a lie but he was specifically asked if there were other instances where he engaged in this type of racist behavior, and he indicated that there's only one other incident and now we know that there is at least three," Scheer said.
In a rare peek behind the curtain of war room tactics, Scheer admitted that his campaign was previously aware of the video of Trudeau and had passed it along to a "responsible" news outlet for verification. Global News first reported the video Thursday morning.
"I can say, as it relates to the video, that a concerned individual who did see this video did bring it to our campaign and our campaign turned it over to a responsible news outlet for verification," Scheer said.
Scheer said he personally saw the video for the first time Thursday, and Wednesday night was the first time he had seen the initial TIME Magazine photo, after the American news outlet published it. That story sent immediate shockwaves through racialized communities and through the federal election campaign.
Scheer said that he has not dressed in a way that would have stereotyped or offended anybody's race or culture, but when asked more generally if there were things from his past that he regrets, he said he has never claimed he’s handled every situation properly and continues to reflect on how he can improve, without offering specifics.
Asked whether this was the time to apologize for his 2005 anti-same-sex marriage speech in the House of Commons, Scheer said he has already addressed this.
This image, taken from a video shot in the early 1990s and obtained by Global News, shows Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in blackface. (Source: Global News)
'A lot to answer for'
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, appearing on CTV's Your Morning on Thursday, restated his emotionally-delivered message the night before.
"Seeing the prime minister do this makes a lot of people question his sincerity, but really question their place, and I really want people to know, despite how hard it is, given those images, I want people to love themselves," Singh said.
In further public comments Thursday, Singh said it is difficult to think about shaking Trudeau's hand the next time they are set to meet face-to-face, at the Oct. 7 English-language Leaders' Commission Debate.
"I think he's got a lot to answer for, I'm also concerned that this is an ongoing pattern of behaviour," Singh said. His comments were commended by Scheer. “As someone who obviously has been victim to these types of things in a way that I never have, I think he responded with a lot of class and dignity,” Scheer said.
Speaking at the B.C. Assembly of First Nations' Annual General Assembly, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said that while the country is trying to process the photos she wouldn’t say anything other that the "settler cultural political class" in Canada "could learn a lot" from Indigenous leadership.
People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier, who once said that blackface was a "non-existent phenomenon" said that while he won't call Trudeau racist, he accused him of being the "master of identity politics" and "biggest hypocrite in the country."
Bloc Quebecois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet tweeted in French about the story, saying that while Trudeau is, according to a translation, "not a good prime minister," he is "not a racist."
'If we get that opportunity'
Reaction from Liberal candidates, Liberal staffers, and Liberal Party members continues to come in, as they respond to questions about how, as members of a political movement that emphasizes that "diversity is our strength" and inclusiveness, are reconciling the visuals that have emerged of their leader.
While some are acknowledging there is "confusion and hurt," they say this is not a representation of the person Trudeau is, and that he is not racist, citing the Liberal government’s work on things like launching a federal anti-racism strategy, and routinely speaking out against discrimination.
"I am an ally, but this is something that obviously I deeply regret and I never should have done," said Trudeau, adding that he doesn't think it represents "the person I've become, the leader I try to be."
Trudeau also spoke Thursday about how systemic discrimination in Canada still exists and that there is more work to do to recognize past wrongs and improve the realities that people of colour in Canada face. This is now more work that he pledges his government would do, "if we get that opportunity."
Pollster Nik Nanos said that "the best case scenario" for Trudeau "is that he takes a hit in terms of his personal brand but Liberal voters still stick with the Liberals." He suggested that the controversy will have effects on the ground, from campaign morale to volunteers trying to sell the party at the doors.
Antoinette Bryan was one of the onlookers who interacted with Trudeau in the park where he delivered his second apology. She told CTV News that when she shook his hand, she wanted him to know that from a black woman’s perspective, she still respects him and was satisfied with his comments.
"I let him know that we all make mistakes, no one's perfect and it’s about what you do to recognize that your actions may have hurt people and what you plan to do moving forward and what you’ve learned from the situation and he let me know that he valued me taking the time to speak with him and that he actually apologized that he put me in a position that I had to say that to him," she said.
Trudeau also addressed the racist photos at a townhall in Saskatoon on Thursday evening.
“Earlier today, you were questioned about how many times you have appeared in blackface or brownface. I’ll make it easy – is it possible to round to the nearest five?” one young man asked him.
Another young man in the crowd then shouted “Yeah!” and high-fived the other who had asked the question.
Trudeau responded by saying that he didn’t want to make light of the situation and repeated his apology.
“Far too many people in this country face discrimination and intolerance on a daily basis and what I did was inexcusable and wrong,” he said.
An older man in the crowd then told Trudeau that he shouldn’t apologize.
“You’re a teacher. You were teaching young kids. I would want you for a teacher.”
Trudeau responded by saying that “there was no excusing” what he did. The next question came from an Indigenous leader who also told Trudeau that he accepts his apology.
With files from CTV News’ Sonja Puzic, Evan Solomon, Glen McGregor, and Ben Cousins.