Credit: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick; Francesca Roh/Xtra
10 min

Drag performers in blackface are held accountable. Justin Trudeau should be, too

Here are the receipts on Trudeau’s history of racist acts

Here’s the tea: Some people have been critical of drag performers in blackface—so why not Liberal leader Justin Trudeau who’s vying for re-election?

Over the past 24 hours, photos and a video of Trudeau in blackface have been leaked to and released by various media outlets. On Wednesday evening, Time magazine published a 2001 photo of Trudeau donning blackface from an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala during his time as a teacher at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy. The then–29-year-old said he was “dressed up in Aladdin costume” and was seen posing with four women while wearing a stereotypical costume with his face painted in dark coloured make-up.

Justin Trudeau posing with two men of colour while donning blackface at a gala at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy. Credit: Photo obtained from “Viewpoint”

The photo was published in The View, West Point Grey Academy’s yearbook. A copy of the yearbook was submitted to Time by Michael Adamson, a Vancouver businessman who saw Trudeau’s photograph in July and decided to make it public.

Trudeau, who was in Halifax when the article was published, spoke to reporters aboard his campaign plane and addressed the issue. “I shouldn’t have done that. It was a dumb thing to do,” Trudeau said. “I’m disappointed in myself. I’m pissed off at myself for having done it. I apologize for it.”

When asked if he had donned similar make-up in the past, Trudeau—who told media that he has always been “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate”—pointed to one incident in high school where he performed in blackface at a talent show.

Hours later, CTV News obtained a photo of the incident, obtained from a yearbook at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Montreal. The photo shows Trudeau wearing blackface while performing the 1956 Jamaican folk song, “Day O.”

On Thursday morning, Global News reported a third instance of the Liberal leader in blackface. He didn’t mention this incident during his apology on Wednesday. According to Global’s Ottawa bureau chief Mercedes Stephenson, Global obtained the video from a source within the Conservative Party of Canada; Conservative leader Andrew Scheer confirmed this during a press conference on Thursday in Saint Hyacinthe, Que.

Stephenson said a Liberal staffer confirmed that the person in the video is in fact, Justin Trudeau. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Liberal Party spokesperson Zita Astravas said it was Trudeau in the video and it was taken in the early 1990s.

Blackface has a long history of belittling and dehumanizing Black people. It originated as far back as 1830 in minstrel shows, when white actors applied dark make-up and performed as free Black plantation slaves on stage. When juxtaposed to what was happening in America at the time, it served to reinforce the white supremacist ideas that that Black people were inferior. Minstrel shows are no longer popular entertainment, blackface has taken new forms contemporary times: Non-Black people dress up as Black people in Halloween, white pop stars mimic Black fashion and style, and drag performers perform in blackface with “Blaccents.”

When the news broke Wednesday evening, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who appeared to be holding back tears, said: “I want to talk to all of the kids out there, all the folks who lived this and are now grown up and still feeling the pain of racism.”

“I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada,” he said. “I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved.”

On Thursday, Singh appeared on CTV’s Your Morning and added: “This raises questions about the sincerity of the prime minister when he goes to events and says that multiculturalism is important and diversity is important — now people question the sincerity of that, and that’s very fair for people to do that.”

In a statement on Wednesday, Conservative leader Scheer called Trudeau’s photos an “open mockery and racism.” He said Trudeau’s actions are just as racist in 2001 as they are in 2019. Scheer added Trudeau’s actions showed a “lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern the country.”

Scheer is in a similar situation after his 2005 comments in opposition to same-sex marriage surfaced in August. When asked by reporters if he would apologize for the comments after the Trudeau photos came to light, the Conservative leader deflected, saying the story right now is about Trudeau and not him.

In an interview on Wednesday, Green party leader Elizabeth May, who was the guest at former Liberal MP Jody Wilson-Raybould’s announcement of candidacy as an independent in Vancouver, said she was shocked by the photograph of Trudeau. The Green leader said that if it were another member of the Liberal party, the candidate would’ve been asked to step down. May said this election campaign has been filled with “media gotcha’” moments, and, citing Wilson-Raybould, said this is the most important election in Canada.

Journalists and commentators were quick to respond to the story. In a tweet, CBC journalist Raisa Patel said, “This is more than a shocking campaign twist. It’s not a thrilling development or a wrench in your [election] scorecard. This is about people who have brown faces that can’t be scrubbed off when the party ends. Be conscious of this.”

Journalist and Canadaland Commons host Arshy Mann also tweeted: “At the time Justin Trudeau was doing his racist pantomime, I was a brown kid with a turban just outside Vancouver facing fairly regular bullying. I can’t imagine how demeaned I would have felt if one of my teachers had done that.”

In her analysis for the National Observer, reporter Fatima Syed said that even before images of Trudeau in blackface emerged, the election has always been about race. “If the country is serious about race, Canadians would connect these dots and ask hard questions of our top leaders: we would ask when they acknowledged racism, if they understand racism—and if they don’t, why they believe they are best suited to help all the communities in this country,” she wrote. “Because if Canadians want to continue to brand themselves as the global ambassadors of the most multicultural country in the world, it’s time they elect leaders that understand what it means to purport and protect that.”

On Thursday afternoon, Trudeau spoke to reporters in Manitoba to address the issue, claiming he could not recall the time he did blackface in the video released by Global News. He said he’s “wary of being definitive” regarding the number of times he has done blackface.

At the time, Trudeau said he didn’t see why his actions were wrong because of the “layers of privilege” he holds. He added: “Darkening your face, regardless of the context, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface. I should have understood that then and never should have done it.”