The Justin Trudeau blackface scandal shows Canada must confront its race problem

A supposed multicultural haven has long tolerated quiet bigotry. 

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General elections in Canada are not usually followed with bated breath by most people outside of the country. But in 2015, when Justin Trudeau became Prime Minister, the world sat up and paid attention. The 43-year-old Dauphin was hailed for his seemingly progressive platform, fawned over because of his telegenic looks and was even featured on a Rolling Stone cover headlined “Why Can’t He Be Our President?”

Now, just a month before the general election on 21 October, the prime minister is receiving less favourable media attention: pictures of him in blackface have surfaced. The first image was taken in 2001 when he was a 29-year-old teacher and allegedly dressed as Aladdin for an "Arabian Nights" party. Two further incidents were later unearthed — one in 1990, when Trudeau was still in high school and another that has yet to be explained. 

The Prime Minister apologised, stating that he was unaware of the racist connotations of blackface and that he now knows better. But questions over Trudeau and his supposedly progressive credentials abound — did he really not know that it was racist at the time? How did it take so long for these images to be uncovered? 

The disparity between the idea of Trudeau and the reality has always been significant. In 2015, the majority of Canadians simply wanted to be rid of the Conservatives, who had been in power for eight years and had dismantled many valued social services. Trudeau’s opening acts — such as appointing a gender-equal cabinet (“because it’s 2015”) — seemed to suggest that he could fulfil the hope placed in him. 

But throughout his tenure as Prime Minister, Trudeau has demonstrated that he’s not the progressive darling people thought he was (or wanted him to be). As Vicky Mochama observed in the Washington Post, “like his feelings on feminism, his views were assumed rather than investigated”. 

Trudeau has approved pipeline after pipeline on indigenous land, despite promising to prioritise First Nations and indigenous people in policy making. He made a cruel jab at a First Nations woman who asked him to address the mercury poisoning of water on her reserve — an issue Trudeua campaigned on — during a fundraising dinner (where tickets were sold for $1,500). He cut corporation tax by $10.5bn and agreed export permits for $15bn-worth of armoured vehicles – including some labelled “heavy assault” – to Saudi Arabia.

Earlier this year, Trudeau demoted and then fired Jody-Wilson Raybould, Canada’s first indigenous justice minister, after seeking to persuade her to halt a criminal case against construction firm SNC-Lavalin. Despite promising to lead a different kind of government, Trudeau’s immigration and justice policies have maintained systems of discrimination. 

Canada is a racist country, one where quiet bigotry almost goes unnoticed. Its cultivated, genteel image — a multicultural haven where everyone says sorry all the time — is an illusion. Canada was built on stolen indigenous land, and indigenous people still have to fight for access to basic services such as clean water. 

Black people who live in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, are 20 times more likely to be killed in an interaction with a police officer than their white counterparts. Blackface has a long history in Canada — Cheryl Thompson, a professor at McGill University, who has written a book on the subject, remarked that “blackface is as Canadian as hockey”. The People’s Party has long parroted far-right talking points and such sentiments have been on the rise in Canada for several years. 

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) and a practicing Sikh, has faced racism at every turn, including from members of his own party. So it’s unsurprising that the reaction to Trudeau’s behaviour by large sections of the Liberal Party has been dismissive. 

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer has declared that this incident proves Trudeau is unfit to govern. But even if we ignore his party’s policies, a Conservative candidate has been associated with Faith Goldy, a kind of poster girl for the Canadian far right (who was interviewed by neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer) and many members of his party have a history of racist, sexist and homophobic behaviour. 

As a Canadian currently living in the UK, the concept of a powerful white man, who was born into a life of privilege, saying and doing racist things, is not new to me, nor is it unique to Canada. While the last week may have been fraught for the Liberal Party, the scandal is unlikely to significantly increase support for the NDP or the Green Party, partly due to Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. 

As in other elections, people from marginalised communities may end up voting for the least worst candidate in Trudeau on 21 October. Denouncing racist incidents by powerful people isn’t a solution to the systemic discrimination and violence which upholds the white supremacy at the heart of Canadian society — the Trudeau scandal was merely a symptom of it.

Sanjana Varghese was previously a Wellcome scholar at the New Statesman. She writes about science and technology.