Borat Justin Trudeau

Trudeau’s brownface is a stain on his political image

There’s no debate to be had about a clearly racist act. But Andrew Scheer needs to take a seat before feigning outrage.

My very first reaction to the news was, “How did Time, an American publication, break the news before Canadian media did?”

That’s my white privilege talking. I can be mortified by brownface and blackface, but it doesn’t hurt me the way it affects people of colour. My first reaction was a purely journalistic one, a detached inquiry about sources and motives. I recognize that. I recognize that I’m writing this column as a white person who has written about blackface on many occasions, because I live in a place where many continue to deny and downplay its damaging effects, and while I know it’s wrong and unacceptable, it still doesn’t affect me in the same way because I’m not the one whose skin colour is being mocked and degraded.

Before I get inundated with the, “‘It’s not a big deal!’ people,” let’s make one thing clear: dressing up in brownface or blackface is racist. There are no debates to be had here. Even if you didn’t know better at the time, even if you were unaware of the harmful and degrading connotations associated with the practice, even if you live in Quebec (where many blissfully continue to claim it has nothing to do with our history and so it’s non-existent as a concept), even if you had no clue how hurtful it is to people of colour, it’s racist. It doesn’t immediately mean the person engaged in the act is racist, but the act itself is racist and wrong and should not be explained or rationalized away.

Trudeau was a 29-year-old teacher when that picture was taken. Even if it was 19 years ago, he should have known better. He was a grown man, not a clueless teenager.

But… and here come the qualifiers… he was a coddled, born-in-privilege, private-school-educated, rich, white man. That leaves you with a lot of blind spots. The kind of blind spots that make you think that you are above reproach, and that, if you don’t consider yourself racist, then nothing you do could possibly be racist.

What one does with those blind spots is up to them. They can easily navigate life never acknowledging them, and the world around them will allow it. Because it’s a world that makes it very easy for privileged white men to ignore what they don’t want to see and feign “cancel culture” and “mob mentality” and “censorship” when they get taken to task and publicly called out for their dumb moves.

There is a difference between deliberate racism and implicit racism, even if the consequences are often the same, and somehow lots of white people think the absence of the former permits the latter. These are not explanations or justifications — just facts. The answer to this is simple: non-malicious intent does not negate the consequences of a deliberately or implicitly racist act. There can be degrees of outrage in response to displays of each, but the end result is always the same for the targeted community: mockery, degradation, derision.

First the good stuff. Trudeau apologized within an hour of that article exploding in all our faces. He appeared contrite and ashamed and annoyed at himself. He also freely divulged that he had appeared in blackface while in high school. Does that make it all right? Of course not! But it’s, at the very least, an attempt not to shirk responsibility and own up to his mess of a mistake. If his motives are sincere or involve a certain election taking place in a month, that’s for voters to decide.

It’s been a rough decade. As a woman, I’ve grown tired of watching men in public office apologize for things they rarely mean. I suspect that people of colour feel the same way. They are probably bitter in ways that I can’t fathom.

It’s no coincidence that Jagmeet Singh’s response to this fiasco — reaching out to visible minorities and reminding them that they matter — was the most sincere and the most heartfelt of all reactions. Because he feels it in ways white people can’t.

We all knew this was going to be a much dirtier campaign, but I didn’t know by how much. The shine has already come off the Trudeau brand. Four years in, Trudeau’s Liberals no longer have the benefit of full-page fashion spreads, handsome Justin in a perfectly fitting suit on the front page of magazines, the Boy Wonder, when one compares him to the slouching, over-tanned, orange-haired pussy-grabbing president to the south. It was easy to be golden.

But those days are long gone. Trudeau supporters still cling to Justin’s personable and warm style and take their cues from the Liberal governing record. There is a lot to be proud of. Advancements have been made on many files and Canada continues to enjoy an enviable international reputation and continues to consistently rank as one of the most successful countries in the world in terms of job creation, stability, social progress and happiness. It’s still a great country to live in.

But lots remains undone, many promises — proportional representation and financial aid to Indigenous communities to name a few — have been broken or sidelined, and this past summer’s SNC-Lavalin affair has left many Canadian voters with a bitter taste in their mouth. We’ve been exposed to the kind of inner-fighting and backroom backstabbing one often doesn’t see aired in public. We’ve seen how the hot dogs are made, for lack of a better analogy, and it’s made us queasy, weary and slightly jaded.

Then there’s the alternative. Scheer, who only a week ago was publicly stating that he stands by his candidates’ mistakes, as long as they see fit to apologize, must think Canadians suffer from some form of collective amnesia when he now insists that nothing short of Trudeau’s resignation will do. It was a week ago, Andrew! Those headlines haven’t even been archived in most newsrooms!

The truth is, Scheer would claim that Trudeau was “unfit to be Prime Minister” if Justin showed up wearing white after Labour Day. His almost-daily and always-awkward soundbites of “shock and outrage” mean absolutely nothing to me because he’s trying hard to convince us that Trudeau being unfit for office somehow means that he should be fit for it. He isn’t.

Forgive me for being completely unmoved by Scheer’s faux outrage by an event that happened two decades ago, when his own campaign manager Hamish Marshall was a director at far-right Rebel Media, and Scheer himself is busy posing with Yellow Vest members and Faith Goldy groupies in the ‘here and now.’ Forgive me for rolling my eyes at a man who pretends to be shocked at brownface when his very own party tried to introduce that loathsome, deeply racist and pretentiously long Zero Tolerance for Barbaric Cultural Practices Act a few years ago. Forgive me for not believing that a man who’s clearly homophobic and anti-choice is ready to be Prime Minister for all Canadians. With the exception of Bernier’s wildly anti-immigrant People’s Party (he should just call it Some People’s Party and get on it with it), the Conservative Party is the only other federal party that espouses principles and a platform that can be injurious to many of my fellow Canadians. So Scheer needs to take a seat before feigning outrage at something I don’t believe his party is capable of being upset by.

At the end of the day, this Trudeau revelation is such a personal disappointment, such a public dressing down of a man and a party who have built a brand centred around multiculturism and celebration of diversity that you can’t help but groan and feel bad for his party’s non-cynical partisans who couldn’t see this coming.

But — and I say this fully cognisant of my own white privilege and potential bias — as disappointed as I am, I still believe those core values are there. Trudeau has often backed those statements with actions. Despite what the xenophobic pundits will have you believe, history will treat Trudeau well for opening up Canadian borders to refugees in desperate need of a home. It will remain one of his finest moments in office. So, this is what it comes down to for me: is this brownface incident part of a pattern in his past and current behaviour, or is it an isolated event, one that does not necessarily reflect on his overall beliefs and actions?

Right this minute, while writing this, I still have a hard time reconciling the man he professes to be and the man who would engage in the kind of intellectual dissonance that would make him believe that donning brownface for a costume party would be okay.

But such is life… full of contradictions, compromises, letdowns and lots of grey zones that each individual needs to navigate for themselves. Some people just get to do it in public.

Whether this remains a permanent stain on Trudeau’s political record or one that ultimately rubs off is ultimately up to him and what he does next. How voters treat it is also up to them and what acts they ultimately consider worthy of clemency or of condemnation. ■