People are going to have to make an “individual choice” on how to react to Justin Trudeau’s past ‘brownface’ and ‘blackface’ incidents, Peace Arch News columnist Taslim Jaffer suggests.
But Jaffer, who writes the monthly Building Bridges column on multicultural connections, said her own reaction to the leaked photos and video was immediate and visceral.
“It was such a horrible way to end up the evening and to wake up this morning,” she told PAN Thursday.
On Wednesday photographs were made public of Trudeau appearing in brownface as ‘Aladdin’ at an Arabian Nights-themed party for parents and faculty at West Point Grey Academy, the Vancouver private school where he taught, in 2001.
Queried by reporters, Trudeau acknowledged the 2001 incident and also admitted that he had previously worn blackface during his high school years, at talent show in which he sang Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song.
“I shouldn’t have done that and I’m sorry I did,” Trudeau told reporters about the events on his campaign plane Wednesday. “It was something I didn’t think that was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do and I am deeply sorry.”
Trudeau apologized again Thursday for video that surfaced of him wearing blackface at an unspecified place and time in his youth, which was later authenticated by Liberal Party staffers.
Further pressed by reporters, he said he could not definitively remember how many instances there were of him donning make-up in the past because his privilege had given him a blind spot on the issue.
Jaffer – clearly still emotional the day after the events emerged – said she is struggling with whether Trudeau’s apologies are enough for her.
“I can speak for myself as someone who can’t scrub the brown off my own skin,” she said. “It took me back to a time when I wished I didn’t have this skin because of racism and bullying I experienced .”
She said she made a point of speaking to her children – aged 12 and nine – about the incidents the evening after they became public.
“I try to do this in a developmentally-appropriate way whenever something involving racism comes up, but it was very hard to tell them,” Jaffer said.
“I keep asking myself if his apology is enough for me. But it’s bigger than forgiving him. It’s not just him, it’s not one person, it’s a systemic disease we live with in Canada.”
She said that while she was shocked to hear the admissions from the Liberal leader – particularly given his campaign positions on multiculturalism, inclusiveness and willingness to accept immigrants – she is not ultimately surprised by what he did.
“Being who he is, a white male heterosexual, he is the epitome of privilege. Society has bred him to be that.”
And she said Canadians will have to do their own soul-searching about their beliefs and where they stand about the Trudeau incidents.
“We’re in the middle of an election – a very difficult time. It’s going to be an individual choice. Some people are already saying – even people of colour – that this was 18 years ago, that people change and grow.”
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer and NDP leader Jasmeet Singh have been swift to condemn Trudeau’s past actions.
Singh said last Wednesday that three separate incidents indicated a pattern of behaviour, and suggested that there is a behind-closed-doors Trudeau who is at odds with his publicly-espoused beliefs.
“A lot of people have serious questions right now,” he said.
Local NDP candidate Stephen Crozier echoed Singh’s comments.
“It does make one question whether Justin Trudeau off-camera is different from what he conveys on camera,” he said.
But he added that he doesn’t think voters should be “thrown off track” from a focus on the pressing issue of climate change and the need to transition from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources.
“This is a crucial time and a crucial election – we have to stay with what is the issue of our time.”
Scheer issued a statement said he was “shocked and disappointed” and that Trudeau’s wearing brownface was “an act of open mockery that was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019.”
“The public have seen someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity…someone who is not fit to govern this country.”
But South Surrey White Rock Liberal candidate Gordie Hogg said early Thursday he was satisfied with Trudeau’s comments and the way he has accepted responsibility for his actions.
“He has apologized and recognized what he did and how it was wrong,” he said. “And I recognize we’re all human and that nobody’s perfect. We’ve all made mistakes.
“I’m still a proud Liberal. I value the leadership and the experience and the policies that have been put in place. We’ve done more for multiculturalism than any other government.”
Hogg added that he feels there is an inconsistency in Scheer’s standpoint given that the Conservative leader has not chosen to apologize for a past speech condemning same-sex marriage, and yet has been willing to overlook past homophobic and racist comments by Conservative candidates, provided they apologized.
“When people espouse principles, they should apply them generally and not specifically,” he said. “If you’re not going to apply it to everyone, I don’t see it as one of your values.”
Conservative candidate Kerry Lynne Findlay said later in the day that while she doesn’t have knowledge of all Conservative campaigns and candidates, she does know that – for her – Trudeau’s actions are shocking and unacceptable, particularly since he can’t quantify the number of incidents in which he has worn brownface or blackface.
“He’s a person who’s lived his life in the public eye and his lack of self-awareness and lack of sensitivity is appalling,” she said, adding she doesn’t feel he has apologized in any meaningful way.
“I haven’t heard a sincere apology from him. He got caught, tried to minimize it, and what he said was shown to be false. That’s not much of an apology.”
Jaffer said the issue has made it harder for her to make up her mind where to cast her vote in the Oct. 21 national election.
“It’s hard to feel that there’s anybody we can put our trust in. People say what they think that voters want to hear, but these are images you can’t just erase from your mind.”
But she said she thinks the situation is an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on our society.
“It’s time to look in the mirror,” Jaffer said.
“We brag to the world that we’re not racist and that we’re better than our neighbours to the south, but many people of colour or indigenous people in Canada don’t get that – they see a different truth.
“This is an opportunity for Canadians to say ‘what are our values?’ What will we fight for and what will we not accept, and how will we move forward from here?” she said.