HALIFAX — A 2001 yearbook photo of a costumed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, his face and hands darkened by makeup, detonated Wednesday on the federal campaign trail, instantly tarnishing the Liberal leader’s bona fides as a champion of tolerance and stopping the party’s re-election momentum squarely in its tracks.
The jarring black-and-white photo, posted online by Time magazine, originally appeared in the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver, B.C., where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics.
It depicts Trudeau at an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala event, clad in an elaborate turban and robe, his face, hands and neck covered in dark makeup — a breathtaking contradiction to the prime minister’s carefully cultivated image as a standard-bearer for Canadian diversity.
“It was a dumb thing to do,” he said during an emergency news conference on board the Liberal campaign plane before taking off for Winnipeg.
“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.”
Asked whether it was the only instance of its kind, Trudeau admitted that during a high school talent show, he wore makeup while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” although he didn’t explicitly say the makeup was dark.
He also said he’s been calling friends and colleagues to apologize personally for the photo, adding that he expects to be making more such calls on Thursday.
“It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I’m deeply sorry,” he said.
“I have worked all my life to try and create opportunities for people, to fight against racism and intolerance, and I can just stand here and say that I made a mistake when I was younger, and I wish I hadn’t.”
The picture depicts the now-Liberal leader alongside four young women — his hands draped over one of them — in what appear to be cocktail dresses, none dressed as elaborately as Trudeau. The Time report describes the photo as having been the subject of gossip within the West Point Grey community.
Word of the photo ripped through the Liberal campaign bus like wildfire when the story broke, instantly changing what had been a convivial end-of-day mood. Staff members suddenly began talking frantically on their cellphones as reporters urgently called their newsrooms before snapping open their laptops.
One of the people Trudeau called Wednesday was Liberal candidate Omar Alghabra, who was born in Saudi Arabia to a Syrian family. In an interview Wednesday night, Alghabra said the prime minister apologized and asked for his advice.
“I told him to be upfront and to own the mistake,” said Alghabra, who admitted to being upset and concerned by the photo, but also ready to forgive.
“As disappointing as it is, it’s not that hard for me to get over it because I’ve seen him act in public and in private and I’ve seen what he’s done for many people who are marginalized or being victimized by stereotypes or racism.”
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, however, was giving no quarter, calling Trudeau unfit to be prime minister.
“Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019,” Scheer said in a brief statement. “And what Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country.”
So-called “blackface” images have been a frequent source of controversy in recent years, predominantly in the United States, where last year a number of prominent state politicians were forced to apologize for similar yearbook images that surfaced publicly.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was taking part in a town hall meeting when the news broke, said it’s becoming clear that Trudeau’s public persona may not be an accurate reflection of who he is. Later, in a powerful statement on live television, Singh — the first non-Caucasian leader of a federal political party — made an emotional appeal to Canadians hurt by the image.
“Seeing this image is going to be hard for a lot of people; it’s going to bring up a lot of pain, it’s going to bring up a lot of hurt,” he said.
“Please reach out to your loved ones, please reach out to people who are suffering in silence right now. Please let them know that they are loved, and they are celebrated for who they are.”
Rachel Decoste, a community activist and media critic in Ottawa who has been outspoken about blackface in Quebec, said the opinions of those who have experienced racism are the ones that matter the most.
“The people affected by this, the people who feel like they’ve been punched in the gut by this revelation — that’s who the media should interview,” Decoste said. “As long as racism is part of the everyday lives of Canadians of colour, none of us have ‘done enough.'”
Green Leader Elizabeth May described herself as “deeply shocked” by the “racism” on display in the photo.
“He must apologize for the harm done and commit to learning and appreciating the requirement to model social justice leadership at all levels of government,” May tweeted. “In this matter he has failed.”
People’s Party of Canada Leader Maxime Bernier described Trudeau on Twitter as a “master of identity politics” whose party has been accusing others of being “white supremacists.”
“He definitely is the biggest hypocrite in the country.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 18, 2019.
— With files from Joanna Smith and Joan Bryden in Ottawa.
Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press