Explaining Trudeau’s Brownface Scandal

September 20, 2019

Late Wednesday evening (September 18), Time Magazine broke a story where Prime Minister and Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau wore brownface to an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001 at West Point Grey, where Trudeau (then 29 years old) was a Math and French teacher. Since the first “Arabian Nights” photo was released, several other images have been released of Trudeau in brownface, including a second photo taken at the same “Arabian Nights” party, a photo of Trudeau in high school performing Day-O, and a video (obtained by Global News and verified  by the Liberal Party) of Trudeau in blackface.

Let’s be clear: in Trudeau’s own words, his actions in 2001 were racist then, and are racist today, and he did the right thing by apologizing.

As this story graduates past the 48-hour mark in the media spotlight, many are questioning not only whether his apology was enough, but also whether his political brand of inclusivity and tolerance will survive a scandal that hits at the core of that political brand.

In 2015, the Liberal Party aligned itself around Trudeau’s superstar brand and personal appeal. As a result, the Party and Prime Minister have since seen the backlash when public perception clashes with the actions that go directly against his brand: calling himself the Feminist Prime Minister but forcing two female Cabinet Ministers to resign over his breach of ethics; he is a strong indigenous supporter (and campaigned as such), but when an indigenous protester confronted him about his administration’s lack of action on the Grassy Narrows scandal, he said “thank you for your donation.

While we can similarly point to Scheer’s communications stumble in providing a clear and – according to some – adequate response to his views on same-sex marriage, Trudeau’s brownface videos and photos undermine the core of his personal brand and, by relation, the brand of the Liberal Party.

Jagmeet Singh’s Response

The first opposition party to respond was the NDP. As the only major party leader who is a visible minority, Jagmeet Singh spoke from his personal experience fighting against racism, and implored young people of colour in Canada to not feel disillusioned in an emotional, poignant speech.

Singh’s meaningful response to the initial brownface photo and to Trudeau’s apology certainly wins Singh political points, as the NDP continued to fall in the polls. A September 14 Abacus Data poll revealed that 52% of NDP “switchers” were somewhat or very likely to end up casting a ballot for a different party, with the majority of that 52% said they would likely vote Liberal.

(Scheer gave a brief press conference in English and French, and later commended to Singh’s response.)

With the progressive split across three parties – the Liberals, NDP, and Green – the Liberal Party would have benefitted from progressives voting strategically. We cannot be sure that voters who currently support the NDP under Jagmeet Singh would be willing to vote for a party whose leader wore blackface not that long ago.

As we have mentioned before, a big part of the Liberals’ 2015 landslide victory was successfully getting young voters and first-time voters to the ballot box on Election Day. The Liberals should not count on that level of support this time around.

Disillusioning Liberal Voters

The other implication of this scandal for Trudeau and the Liberal Party is voter disillusionment and disenfranchisement. According to Vassy Kapelos, some Liberal candidates are even feeling disappointed in the Prime Minister, especially after several LPC candidates unearthed problematic past comments (primarily against Conservative candidates) and have demanded or suggested the offending candidate step down.

The brownface scandal is set against a backdrop of multiple candidates from every party being forced to step down after their own problematic pasts were uncovered. Just one week after the election officially started, the major political parties and their leaders are being asked to reckon with when to dump a candidate, which is an even more challenging proposition in the age of social media and immutable tweets.

The Conservatives asked their Winnipeg North candidate (Cameron Ogilvie) to step down over discriminatory comments made on social media (while also accepting the apologies of several candidates for past incendiary comments on social media). The NDP have kicked out two candidates during the official election period, one for domestic abuse allegations (Olivier Mathieu) and one for problematic social media posts towards pipeline supporters (Dock Currie). The Greens, meanwhile, have asked one candidate to resign over anti-Muslim social media comments, and have had to go through the process of re-vetting other Green candidates.

Meanwhile, the Liberals were reportedly aware of Hassan Guillet’s anti-Semitic comments before the election period officially started and were trying to manage the story before B’nai Brith made the comments public and forced the Liberals’ hand to dump the candidate. Guillet had previously issued a statement apologizing for his comments and added, “Since then I have evolved. Everyone who knows me, personally or through my works, knows that I am against hate, racism, anti-Semitism and violence regardless of the identity of the perpetrators or victims.” The Liberal Party replied in a statement that the “insensitive comments made by Hassan Guillet are not aligned with the values of the Liberal Party of Canada.”

It is important to pay attention to the circumstance in which a candidate is allowed to apologize for their past actions, and when a candidate is forced to resign. Both CPC Leader Andrew Scheer and NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh have stated that, so long as candidates apologize and show they have changed (past comments or actions within reason, of course), then problematic candidates can stay in the party. Even though Trudeau criticized Scheer’s forgive-and-forget policy, Trudeau himself asked voters to judge him on his record on Election Day, and said that his party would judge other candidates on a “case-by-case basis” when determining if they should be forced to step down: “If you need to be perfect every step of your life, then we’ll have a hard time finding people to run for public office.”

Moving Forward?

It is also curious why Trudeau and his team didn’t break the story themselves. In Trudeau’s Wednesday night press conference, he admitted that he was aware the story would break “earlier,” but he would have been in a stronger starting position had he broken the story himself earlier in the day: hold a press conference, admit what happened, apologize, and ask for voters’ forgiveness. By breaking the story himself, Trudeau could have taken hold of the narrative, and try to rebuild his brand of transparency and openness. Now, it appears the narrative has run away from him, especially as more images and videos emerge.

It should go without saying, but it is also important to involve racialized journalists in the press conference. Several weeks ago, Tonda MacCharles tweeted a photo from inside Trudeau’s press plane, which was seriously lacking in diversity. Especially with this kind of racialized story, it is crucial to involve non-white journalists who can speak to their lived experiences and ask the follow-up questions at Trudeau’s press conference that were missing. As Elamin Abdelmahmoud outlined on Party Lines, these journalists could have asked “when did you realize this was racist? Can you articulate why this is racist now? How are you going to lead by example moving forward?” Trudeau will have to resolutely explain to voters how he has changed and evolved since 2001 to encourage people to get out and vote Liberal.

Meanwhile, rumours swirl that there are even more images of Trudeau in brownface or blackface that have yet to emerge.

In his Wednesday night press conference, Trudeau asked voters to “[move] forward” with him. This scandal, and how each party leader frames the narrative around it, may be the seminal, watershed moment in this election.