Trudeau Campaign Jolted After 2001 ‘Brownface’ Photo Surfaces

Theophilos Argitis and David Scanlan
Trudeau Campaign Jolted After 2001 ‘Brownface’ Photo Surfaces

(Bloomberg) -- Justin Trudeau’s re-election bid was dealt a serious blow after the Canadian prime minister was forced to apologize for wearing “brownface” makeup at an “Arabian Nights” theme party in 2001, saying it was racist and a dumb thing to do.

“I deeply regret that I did that,” a shaken Trudeau told reporters on his campaign plane late Wednesday. “I should have known better but I didn’t.”

The explosive photo of Trudeau, first published by Time Magazine, appeared in the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, the private school in Vancouver where the leader once taught. The photograph shows Trudeau wearing an ornate white turban, with his face and hands darkened. The prime minister, who was then 29, poses with four women, his brown arms draped over one of them.

Trudeau also admitted that he wore make-up in high school for a talent-show rendition of “Day-O,” a Jamaican folk song. A photo of that incident also surfaced Wednesday night.

The photos are a potentially crippling setback for Trudeau, just weeks before an Oct. 21 federal election. The Canadian leader, who has already seen his support wane over the past year amid an ethics scandal involving Montreal construction giant SNC-Lavalin Group Inc., has made diversity a central tenet of his government.

The latest polling numbers through Wednesday from Nanos Research show the Conservatives, at nearly 38%, have opened a slight lead on the Liberals, at 35%. The New Democratic Party, at under 12%, continues to lose support, while the Greens are holding in fourth place near 8%.

The photo, along with a report from Canada’s ethics commissioner last month that Trudeau broke conflict of interest laws by seeking an out-of-court settlement on SNC’s behalf, may give a boost to Trudeau’s opponents in a tight election race. Other polls, including aggregate data compiled by the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., show the Liberals and Conservatives in a dead heat around 34%.

“Like all Canadians, I was extremely shocked and disappointed when I learned of Justin Trudeau’s actions this evening,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said on a campaign stop in Quebec. “Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019.”

Scheer said the photo reveals “someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country.”

“He has to answer to that,” said NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who said he grew up dealing with racism in Canada. “That’s really insulting” and makes a mockery of people and where they come from, he added.

Trudeau, 47, says he didn’t think at the time that dressing up as a dark-skinned “Aladdin” character for the gala was racist, but he realizes now that it was. “It was a dumb thing to do,” he said. “I’m pissed off at myself,” said Trudeau, who added he learned earlier Wednesday that the 18-year-old photo was going to be published. “I am asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did.”

According to Time, the photo was spotted in July by Michael Adamson, a Vancouver businessman who is part of the West Point Grey Academy community and felt the photo should be made public. The elite private school is in a neighborhood with some of Canada’s most expensive homes.

Trudeau isn’t the first politician to be scarred by brown-faced photos from their past.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam in February apologized for having darkened his skin to dress up like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984. It was his defense against the revelation of a photo that appears on his 1984 medical school yearbook page, featuring one individual dressed in a Ku Klux Klan robe alongside another in blackface. After first admitting to appearing in the picture, Northam insisted it wasn’t him.

Trudeau has been a vocal supporter of women and minority rights since he was first elected in 2015. He was the first Canadian prime minister to appoint a gender balanced cabinet, and has boosted immigration levels to the highest since the First World War.

Those deeds may be overshadowed now by his series of missteps, including a trip to India that went awry. The Canadian leader was harshly criticized for his February 2018 visit, in which he donned traditional garb at photo opportunities with his wife and children.

“I’ve always -- and you’ll know this -- been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” Trudeau told reporters on the plane.

(Updates with embed of second Trudeau photo.)

To contact the reporters on this story: Theophilos Argitis in Ottawa at targitis@bloomberg.net;David Scanlan in Toronto at dscanlan@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: David Scanlan at dscanlan@bloomberg.net, Stephen Wicary, Chris Fournier

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