Justin Trudeau tries to save campaign after racism scandal
Following the release of a video showing a third instance of Justin Trudeau dressed up in blackface, Canada’s prime minister apologised for how his “racist” behaviour had “hurt people who shouldn’t have to face intolerance and discrimination because of their identity.”
The question is how much damage the blackface scandal has done to his Liberal Party’s bid for re-election on October 21, and whether Mr Trudeau’s carefully-crafted brand of progressivism on the world stage has been forever tarnished.
On Wednesday, photos of Mr Trudeau wearing blackface at an Arabian Nights-themed party when he was a 29-year-old private school teacher in 2001 rocked the campaign. That night he admitted to also putting on blackface and singing “Day-O” in high school, but told reporters those were the only two times he did so.
But then video from a third event surfaced. Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who is tied in the polls with Mr Trudeau, said his party had obtained the tape and provided it to the media.
After cancelling all campaign events Thursday, Mr Trudeau told a crowd gathered in Winnipeg, Manitoba: “the choices I made hurt people who thought I was an ally . . . Hopefully many of them still consider me an ally.”
He also said that the “layers of privilege” he enjoyed growing up white and wealthy as the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau created a “massive blind spot” for him.
Reporters pressed Mr Trudeau about whether other images of him in blackface could emerge during the campaign. He said he was “wary of being definitive”, because he had forgotten the third instance and may not remember other times he wore blackface.
While Mr Scheer said the prime minister had “long lost the moral authority to govern”, political observers said it was too early to assess how badly the images will hurt his campaign until new polling results come in reflecting the revelations.
However, pollster Darrell Bricker, the chief executive of Ipsos Public Affairs, said the scandal has already undermined the Liberal Party’s re-election strategy of attacking Mr Scheer’s Conservatives on social issues.
“They’ve been demonising the Conservatives on abortion, LGBTQ rights and inclusivity particularly as it relates to visible minorities, and now that sledgehammer is gone,” he said.
In recent weeks Liberals have deployed a steady barrage of opposition research including old social media posts and awkward video clips against Conservative candidates, including Mr Scheer, which has at times threatened to derail his campaign.
“That blackface picture completely undercuts Justin Trudeau’s ability to stand up and make those claims,” said Mr Bricker.
Central to Mr Trudeau’s support among Liberal voters has been his international celebrity status, said Mr Bricker, “but what makes you strong also makes you weak.”
Since declaring at the Paris climate summit in 2015, shortly after his majority election, that “Canada is back, my friends,” Mr Trudeau has been featured on multiple magazine covers, and cultivated relationships with celebrities like Trevor Noah and Rihanna around issues like women’s rights and education.
He has also positioned himself and his government as vanguards against the rise of populist forces and the spread of xenophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and homophobia.
“I think that’s the saddest part of this,” said Bessma Momani, a professor of political science at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs.
“There were many progressives globally who were looking for a hero to advocate for traditional liberal values and progressive values that are now stunned, speechless and clearly disheartened,” she said.
Ms Momani said despite the blackface photos and video she still considers the Trudeau government of the past four years to have had the most progressive platform of any Canadian government in history.
“But there’s a mismatch now between what the face of the brand of the Liberal party appears to be and what is substantively a pro-diversity, anti-discrimination type of platform,” she said.
During his appearance in Winnipeg Mr Trudeau was asked if his behaviour had damaged Canada’s reputation on the world stage. He avoided directly answering the question and instead said that even in “a pretty great country” like Canada people still face marginalisation and systemic racism every day and that “we have a lot more work to do.”
It was a flashback to the pre-blackface-revelation Justin Trudeau, who critics have long accused of a glib, surface-level progressivism.
One danger for Mr Trudeau in this election is that his blackface appearances will become a “point of ridicule or object lesson” among international media, said Mr Bricker.
“Either one of those approaches by people around the world is embarrassing, and Canadians don’t want to be embarrassed,” he said
Then there is the worry among Liberals that younger voters, whose high turnout helped deliver Mr Trudeau victory in 2015, might stay home on election day.
“What happens to the enthusiasm of Liberal voters who were already not enthusiastic about Mr Trudeau before this,” said Mr Bricker.
Even if Mr Trudeau wins re-election, his actions could have lasting impact on relations with the US, where race is “a third-rail issue in politics,” Mr Bricker said.
“Barack Obama once standing next to Justin Trudeau for a photo was a natural thing until yesterday,” he said. “How do you think that would look now?”