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Trudeau’s teachable moment

1 October 2019

Although the electoral impact is unclear, Canadians can learn much from this month’s revelations

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Bouncing back: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau campaigning last Thursday in Sudbury, Ontario, a little over a week after the “brownface” controversy erupted. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP

Bouncing back: Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau campaigning last Thursday in Sudbury, Ontario, a little over a week after the “brownface” controversy erupted. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press via AP


Justin Trudeau came into the public eye almost from the moment of his birth, on Christmas Day 1971, to Margaret and Pierre Trudeau. Except for nine months in 1979–80 when his father was out of office, young Justin spent his first thirteen years in Canada’s prime ministerial residence, and he and his two brothers were seen frequently in public. The dramatic breakdown of his parents’ marriage in the late 1970s focused even more attention, indirectly, on the youngsters.

Justin and his brothers moved to Montreal with Pierre after his father’s retirement from politics in 1984. The three sons began developing their own lives in relative privacy. The middle son, Alexandre (Sacha), eventually settled into documentary filmmaking. The youngest son, Michel, was killed in a skiing avalanche in 1998 at the age of twenty-three, a loss that reportedly shattered Pierre Trudeau, who died two years later.

Justin Trudeau only returned to the public eye when he gave a compelling, tearful eulogy at his father’s funeral. Attention quickly turned to what he had been up to as an adult — and the answer, arguably, was not much. After obtaining his undergraduate degree in literature he had drifted, starting but not finishing a teaching degree and then moving to British Columbia to work as a snowboarding instructor and nightclub doorman. He completed his educational qualifications and began teaching at a Vancouver private school, and it was during this stint that his father died and he gave the stirring eulogy. A few months later, he attended a school party with the theme of “Arabian Nights.”

Justin Trudeau continued to move around. According to his autobiography, he found the atmosphere at the private school limiting and switched briefly to a public high school before returning to Montreal. Finding his teaching credentials not immediately transferable, he switched focus entirely and enrolled in an engineering program. Then, after a couple of years, he switched again, to environmental geography, but didn’t complete that degree either. Even into his mid-thirties, it was not clear what he was going to do with his life.

What was clear was that he enjoyed being the centre of attention. After the eulogy he was invited to sit on public boards, host a radio show, and serve as master of ceremonies for high-profile events. He worked as a motivational speaker, garnering what was later revealed to be a considerable income. Eventually, in 2008, he ran for parliament and was elected for his father’s old party, the Liberals, at the age of thirty-six.

With the Liberal Party of Canada in bad shape, the election of a new Trudeau to parliament was widely noted. Interest deepened following the party’s disastrous plunge to third place at the 2011 election. A precious bright light at Liberal fundraising events, Trudeau was an obvious candidate for party leader. Although he initially declared he wouldn’t run, he eventually sailed to victory on a sea of lower-profile candidates.

The new leader’s maturity and judgement were soon questioned. The governing Conservatives ripped into him with the slogan “Just Not Ready,” accompanied by pointed barbs at his thin résumé and alleged superficiality. Trudeau himself contributed evidence, with odd or impetuous statements such as his 2013 blurting that he had “a level of admiration” for China because “their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime.” And even for a politician he seemed to be unusually thirsty for any kind of attention, as exemplified by his charity boxing match against a Conservative senator in 2012.

Despite his quirks, though, Trudeau’s warm, empathetic style hit a public nerve, and at the 2015 election he came from behind to clinch a remarkable victory that was noticed around the world. The new government moved swiftly and impressively on many fronts.

As prime minister, though, Trudeau continued to display lapses of judgement. He broke promises and breached ethics guidelines, and drove two female ministers out of cabinet and the party caucus. Several of his missteps were seemingly tied to a continuing thirst for attention. In 2017, for instance, he took an official trip to India with his family that appeared to be solely for domestic political rather than foreign policy purposes. Struggling to arrange a meeting with prime minister Narendra Modi or any other key figures, he appeared to spend much of the trip attending public events and wearing traditional Indian dress, presumably to garner favour with South Asian voters back home.

Trudeau’s love of and comfort in the spotlight, so different from his buttoned-down predecessor Stephen Harper, also led to a series of small but awkward moments when his spontaneous banter fell flat or was misinterpreted — for example, when he told a questioner at a town hall meeting who said “mankind” that he preferred “peoplekind.” Debate about whether the prime minister was serious or joking lasted for days. “It’s a little reminder to me that I shouldn’t be making jokes,” he said later, “even when I think they’re funny.”

A tweet to South African/US comic Trevor Noah during a global charity concert caused further questioning of his judgement and impulse control. In the middle of the televised event, Noah read out a tweet from Trudeau: “Hey @Trevornoah — thanks for everything you’re doing to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s legacy at the @GlblCtzn festival. Sorry I can’t be with you — but how about Canada pledges $50M to @EduCannotWait to support education for women & girls around the world? Work for you? Let’s do it.” He was immediately attacked by the opposition Conservatives, who accused him of impulsively pledging $50 million of taxpayer money while watching television. Though untrue, the accusation resonated because Canadians were familiar with their celebrity prime minister’s spontaneous attention-grabbing.

This brings us to the evening of 18 September this year, the second week of the 2019 federal election campaign, when news broke of a photograph of Trudeau in brownface make-up at the Arabian Nights gala at the Vancouver school back in 2001. The picture quickly flashed across the country and then the world. Standing in his campaign plane, Trudeau gave an emotional apology, acknowledging that he recalled the incident and that there had been other such occasions. Soon enough, pictures emerged showing him in black and brown make-up at various events in the 1980s and 1990s.

The country was stunned, and at first unsure what to make of it. Media commentary exploded. Would this doom the Liberals to an election loss? Would Trudeau have to resign? Conservative leader Andrew Scheer didn’t hesitate to grab this political gift — thundering that Trudeau was “not fit to govern this country” — but the next most prominent opposition leader, Jagmeet Singh of the New Democrats, tweeted a different message. “Tonight is not about the prime minister. It’s about every young person mocked for the colour of their skin,” he wrote. “The child who had their turban ripped off their head. And those reliving intense feelings of pain & hurt from past experiences of racism. To you, I say you are loved.” These two reactions capture the divergent responses to the photo and Trudeau’s stunning lack of judgement.


Canada is a deeply and increasingly multiracial nation. The 2016 census reported that 22 per cent of Canadians were members of “visible minorities” (Canada’s official though increasingly problematic term for people of colour). A further 5 per cent were reported to be Indigenous.

Many Canadians pride themselves on the tolerance and diversity of their country. And Canada is indeed a success story in many ways, most notably in its ability to balance linguistic issues between French- and English-speakers. It has successfully absorbed waves of increasingly diverse migrants over the years, and parties of both the left and right have worked to keep xenophobic attitudes and personnel out of their ranks.

But there is a limit to all this. Racism, both overt and systemic, remains clearly evident. Newer waves of primarily non-white immigrants have struggled to integrate and prosper at the pace of earlier, European waves. Intolerant views are evident, and xenophobia lurks on the edges of politics, most notably in the relatively new People’s Party. Most of all, Canada struggles to deal with its history of genocide against Indigenous peoples, and deep and entrenched racism, poverty and injustice.

Notwithstanding these problems, the Trudeau government’s record on race and diversity is at least somewhat progressive. Trudeau came to office promising to quickly accept and resettle 25,000 refugees from Syria, in contrast to the Harper government’s hesitancy. He rejected Conservative attempts to restrict the wearing of the niqab for citizenship ceremonies and proposals for a hotline for reporting “barbaric cultural practices.” His government placed a strong emphasis on diversity in policies and appointments (though primarily prioritising gender, not race) and placed an African–Nova Scotian, the civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond, on the $10 bill. It held a royal commission on missing and murdered Indigenous women. For many Canadians these actions are still insufficient, but they have made a modest contribution.

One former mid-level adviser spoke out about the racism he believed to exist within the Liberal government, and a former black Liberal MP who left the caucus earlier this year tweeted that “the privilege continues.” But beyond his appalling make-up choices, no one has yet come forward with specific personal allegations against Trudeau.

Many Canadians processed his record of repeatedly wearing racialised make-up, even at age twenty-nine, through the existing, familiar lens of his weakness for attention-grabbing. Recent polling has found only limited changes in voting intentions, mostly within the bounds of statistical error. Many respondents said the incidents were safely in the past; many who said they were “offended” and had changed their mind about Trudeau had been planning to vote Conservative anyway.


While we await a detailed and comprehensive analysis, the furore over what became known as #brownface appeared to take the divergent paths exemplified by Scheer’s and Singh’s immediate responses.

In one, primarily white commentators focused on the electoral impact and the effect on Trudeau’s personal brand and leadership. Much effort went into rooting out further damning evidence and tracking down anyone who attended the 2001 party. Debate erupted about just how outrageous it was to wear racialised make-up eighteen years ago. Liberal MPs of colour were grilled on whether they stood by their leader, with many defending Trudeau and placing his actions very much in the past. No current members of the Liberal elites spoke against him.

Among non-white Canadians, in the media and beyond, the discourse was different. Many expressed anger and deep hurt. Some attacked Trudeau and his government for their actions and inactions. But the overall tone was similar to Singh’s initial tweet: that this was less about Trudeau than about race and racism in Canada. As the nationally prominent Muslim mayor of Calgary, Naheed Nenshi, wrote:

Let’s dispense with the obvious: Yes, it was a stupid thing to do, as much in 2001 as now. No, he’s not a racist. Yes, he’s done incredible things for pluralism at home and abroad. He’s apologised honestly and acknowledged how his own privilege blinded him to the impact of his actions on others. No, we don’t need to demand more penance from him… But this tawdry incident highlights a much more important conversation all Canadians — and citizens of all liberal democracies — need to have.

The need for a “conversation” — the sense that this incident provided an opportunity to address the multiple dimensions of race and racism in Canada — was raised by many (while others issued an exasperated welcome to existing conversations). The photos of Trudeau led many people of colour in Canada to share their own painful experiences of racism. They blamed a system and a society, not the prime minister alone, as well as the Canadian tendency to avoid difficult conversations about race, even in the midst of a federal election.

Three aspects of the current federal election were particularly identified as areas being tiptoed around.

One was Jagmeet Singh himself, the leader of Canada’s national third party, the New Democrats. A Sikh man who wears a turban, Singh is the first person of colour to head a prominent federal political party. His race and “electability” have been raised during the campaign, but in an indirect, veiled fashion. A New Democratic Party official in New Brunswick, for instance, switched to the Greens because “he had heard from some potential NDP candidates who were hesitant to run federally because they thought New Brunswick voters wouldn’t vote for a party whose leader wore a turban.” Blaming others, not oneself, for racist attitudes is a low-key but poisonous undercurrent in Canadian politics, and has a likely but unknown effect on attitudes towards Singh.

A second issue is what is called “reasonable accommodation” in Quebec, whose provincial legislature recently passed Bill 21 restricting public employees from wearing “religious symbols.” This means, for example, that teachers can’t wear a hijab or skullcap. The measures are broadly, though certainly not universally, supported among Quebec politicians, but in the rest of Canada it is difficult to identify a single mainstream politician, media figure or intellectual supporting them. Yet all federal leaders, including the prime minister, have been reluctant to speak too directly on Bill 21, given not only its general popularity in Quebec but also the reality that many Canadians outside Quebec support similar measures.

A third is the xenophobia of the People’s Party of Canada. Its leader, Maxime Bernier, a former minister in Stephen Harper’s government who came a very close second in the Conservative Party leadership race in 2017, has become increasingly outspoken against “mass immigration” and official multiculturalism, among other issues. (He has said federal politicians should not intervene on Bill 21 on grounds of provincial jurisdiction.) His party rates very modestly in national polls but has a Canada-wide organisation and enough momentum to earn him a controversial spot in the leaders’ debates in the second week of October. While Bernier has always framed himself primarily as a small-government libertarian, race and xenophobia increasingly dominate his rhetoric. Both his opponents and the media often seem unsure how to respond.

After the Trudeau photos were revealed, it seemed for a moment that these issues and more would explode out of their hidden corners, becoming matters that all Canadians talked about and consequently reorienting the election. That didn’t happen. The seeming lack of change in the polls and the absence of unrest in Liberal ranks curbed the media’s thirst for blood. Trudeau cautiously ventured back into regular campaigning; the other parties and the media largely moved on. Within a week, the election was carrying on almost as if the images were forgotten.

While a verdict will be delivered on election day, 21 October, the greatest damage to Justin Trudeau for now is perhaps not domestic but international. The photos were probably even more shocking to international observers less familiar with the day-to-day realities of the Trudeau style. The diminution of the Trudeau brand may not be entirely bad for Canada, though. The prime minister sometimes appears to believe that his personality can substitute for the hard work of diplomacy. An international humbling may be good for him and for the stability of Canadian foreign relations.

It’s useful to recall that Pierre Trudeau also did outrageous and attention-getting things. His chief biographer has documented his anti-Semitic attitudes in the 1930s and his sceptical view of national war policy during the second world war, noting that some of this information would have been “political dynamite” if it had come out when he was prime minister. Despite his cool image of “reason over passion,” Pierre liked to show off even as prime minister, once doing an odd pirouette behind the Queen’s back. Perhaps most outrageously, he married a twenty-two-year-old, Margaret Sinclair, Justin’s mother, when he was fifty-one. (Margaret Trudeau also built a new life post-Pierre, eventually revealing her struggles with mental illness and becoming an outspoken advocate. She is still thriving at seventy-one, recently performing a one-person show about her life.)

Halfway through, the election continues to be a muddled, tight race, with the Liberals and Conservatives essentially tied, the other parties scrapping for space, and no dominant issue emerging. Any long-term effect of the black- and brownface photos remains to be seen, especially if Trudeau is elected to a second term. But it will not be forgotten by many Canadians, especially people like Singh, Nenshi and many others who have told of how the images resonated with them and their experiences. If Canadians and others, including Australians, don’t learn from this abrupt exposure of the realities of race and racism, it will be a missed opportunity. •

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Chinese president Xi Jinping at a dinner in the Great Hall of the People yesterday marking the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Andy Wong/AP Photo

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