Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau was forced to apologise on Wednesday for wearing brownface make-up to an Arabian Nights-themed gala he attended when he worked as a teacher in 2001.
Time magazine published a yearbook photo of Mr Trudeau in the garb, forcing him to make an apology aboard his campaign plane as his Liberal party is in a fierce battle for re-election.
“I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put make-up on,” he told reporters after the photo of the costume came to light. At the time, Mr Trudeau was a 29-year-old teacher at West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver.
“I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better. And I’m sorry,” he said.
The revelation about the photo comes with just a little over one month to go before the country’s October 21 federal election. Polls on Wednesday showed Mr Trudeau held a narrow lead over his main rival, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer. The prime minister has repeatedly accused Mr Scheer of allowing intolerance to flourish in his party.
Mr Trudeau also admitted to reporters that in a high school talent show he performed the Jamaican folk song Day-O while wearing blackface make-up.
Asked directly if he had considered resigning over the photo, Mr Trudeau said he took “responsibility” for his actions but said he would be “asking Canadians to forgive” him.
“It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time but now I recognise it is something that is racist,” he said.
Mr Scheer said he was “extremely shocked and disappointed” and that wearing brownface is an “act of open mockery and racism”.
Brownface was “just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019”, he said.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the leftwing New Democratic party and Canada’s first non-white federal party chief, called the photo “troubling” and “insulting”.
“What does that say about what he thinks about people who because of the colour of their skin face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their life?” he said during a campaign event.
Mr Singh said there was “a pattern of behaviour” in which Mr Trudeau in public “seems really nice, really warm” but behind closed doors it was a different story.
He pointed to comments Mr Trudeau made at a Liberal party fundraiser when he was confronted by a protester from a First Nations community over contaminated drinking water. As the protester was escorted from the room, Mr Trudeau said “Thank you for your donation” to laughs and applause. He apologised after video of the exchange was made public.
Mr Trudeau, who was elected in 2015 with a majority government following a campaign that relied heavily on tolerance, optimism and “doing politics differently” has seen his political brand tarnished in the past year over allegations that he and his top officials tried to pressure Jody Wilson-Raybould, former attorney-general, to allow engineering company SNC-Lavalin to avoid criminal charges.
Canada’s federal ethics commissioner found Mr Trudeau guilty of breaching conflict of interest legislation. Mr Trudeau then too said that he took “responsibility” for his actions but disputed some of the report’s conclusions.
Mr Trudeau also said he took “full responsibility” in 2017 after the ethics commissioner found him guilty of violating conflict of interest rules when he failed to properly clear a Barbados vacation with the Aga Khan, the billionaire religious leader.
Mr Trudeau has faced criticism in the more recent past for being what he described Wednesday as “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate”. He may have been referring to his family’s trip to India last year when he appeared in a series of over-the-top traditional outfits.
Several of Mr Trudeau cabinet ministers are people of colour and he said he had contacted them to apologise for the photo.
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