The run-up to the United States’s 2020 election has felt endless; it’s probably easy for Americans to forget that, just north of the border, we Canadians are gearing up for a federal election of our own. As Canada prepares to elect a new prime minister on October 21—Canadian elections are significantly shorter than the yearslong U.S. slog, running anywhere from 36 to 50 days—our election cycle has mostly failed to gain the interest of our neighbors down south. Until Wednesday evening, that is.
Initially reported by Time magazine, a yearbook photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau resurfaced showing him in brownface at an Arabian Nights–theme party in 2001 when he was teaching at a Vancouver private school. Some supporters might be inclined to defend such behavior as youthful indiscretion, but Trudeau was 29 years old when the photos were taken. While he wasn’t an elected official at the time, he was the son of a former prime minister, born into wealth and privilege, so it’s hard to write this off as a simple misstep—especially because within hours another photo emerged of him wearing blackface in high school. The next morning a Canadian news outlet dug up video footage from the early 1990s featuring Trudeau in blackface. On Thursday he acknowledged the possibility of other instances of the racist costume: “I am wary of being definitive about this because the recent pictures that came out I had not remembered,” he said.
Trudeau possesses an international reputation for being a woke bae, self-identified feminist, and welcomer of refugees. From the beginning, when he appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, the Canadian prime minister has been a vivid example of what it might be like to have a progressive head of state, battling climate change, publicly approving of antidiscrimination laws, and suggesting that boys be raised as feminists to combat sexism. Yet many Canadians have noted that Trudeau talks a big game when it comes to social justice but his record doesn’t always measure up. Just after declaring a climate emergency this summer, for example, Trudeau approved an oil-pipeline expansion over the objections of First Nations communities, despite having declared: “No relationship is more important to Canada than the relationship with indigenous peoples.”
It’s bracing to see images of a current world leader doing something so unambiguously racist on multiple occasions—particularly a leader previously so lauded for being progressive. Still, for Canadians paying attention to this election cycle, which has been littered with instances of racism, they weren’t entirely surprising.
Predictably much of the ugliness has actually come from Trudeau’s opposition. The Conservative Party of Canada has weathered its own slew of racist controversies in the lead-up to the election. With one senator, Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu, outed as an active member of a far-right Facebook group, and party member Andrew Scheer’s ties to far-right activist Faith Goldy being revealed, it’s been an extra-exhausting month for people of color in Canada.
Jagmeet Singh, the Sikh leader of the New Democratic Party and the only candidate of color, was the only Canadian politician to really reckon with the damage done by the photos, asking, “How do you look somebody in the eye that’s mocked the lived reality…that so many Canadians have lived?” These photos may have been taken years ago, but the systemic racism that enabled Trudeau’s photos is still alive and well today; on Tuesday national news outlet CTV News tweeted an article questioning whether Canada is ready for a turban-wearing prime minister.
The conversation around these incidents is not much of a cause for hope. When the news initially broke, journalists of color pointed out how the conversation didn’t center those most affected by blackface. Instead members of the press have been focusing on whether Trudeau will step down as party leader, especially since Conservative candidates have recently stepped down for racist activity. And when you look more closely at the media, it seems obvious why the discussion remains so surface level. Recently an image circulated showing an all-white media bus following Trudeau’s party. It’s not that white journalists can’t adequately cover white supremacy and racism, but Trudeau’s racism being covered solely by white journalists creates narratives that don’t always include the constituents of color his actions have harmed. When the discussions are being held primarily by other white people, are they even worth having?
With just a month left before Canadians go to the polls, it’s no question these photos will be discussed at considerable length. And they should be—blackface and brownface are objectively racist, full stop. It’s possible though for Trudeau to turn this into a watershed of accountability—to show how easy it is for white people to dehumanize people of color and how important it is to do better. He has officially addressed the photos and footage: “What I did hurt people who shouldn’t have to face intolerance and discrimination because of their identity,” he said. “This is something I deeply, deeply regret.” But he hasn’t offered much to broaden the discussion of how this plays into the normalization of racism in Canada. Unfortunately, thanks to the inadequate way we discuss these issues, that might just be enough for most Canadians.
Originally Appeared on Vogue