OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau refused to rule out the possibility that there could be more than three images of him wearing blackface, an admission that directed yet more criticism toward a shaky Liberal campaign already rocked by scandal.
At a press conference Thursday, Trudeau twice avoided answering whether there were more images of him in blackface and when pressed on the matter a third time said, “I am wary of being definitive.”
His comments came after a photo published in Time magazine showed Trudeau wearing brownface as part of an Aladdin costume in 2001, drawing widespread condemnation. Another image then emerged of him in blackface singing at a high school talent show. Global News then revealed a video of Trudeau in either blackface or brownface — this time in the early 1990s.
A photo posted online by Time of Justin Trudeau with dark makeup on his face at a 2001 “Arabian Nights party at West Point Grey Academy.
The photos and video made international headlines, and brought into sharp focus what many observers called a blatant hypocrisy by the Liberal leader, who for years has pedalled an aggressive brand of progressive politics. The Trudeau government has long framed the opposition Conservatives as being dangerously regressive on social issues such as gender equality and abortion, while touting itself as uniquely attuned to the struggles of marginalized groups, including ethnic minorities.
“This is something that I deeply, deeply regret,” Trudeau said Thursday. “Darkening your face regardless of the context or the circumstances is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface.”
Trudeau said he hadn’t recalled some of those earlier images and that he didn’t see at the time that it was wrong because of his advantaged upbringing.
“I think the question is: ’How can you not remember that?’” Trudeau said. “The fact is I didn’t understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day. I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege — but I now need to acknowledge that that comes with a massive blind spot.”
“I never talked about this — quite frankly I was embarrassed,” he said when asked whether he had mentioned it during the vetting process before entering politics.
“It was not something that represents the person I’ve become, the leader I try to be, and it was really embarrassing.”
Trudeau also declined to clarify whether other Liberal candidates would be forced to step down if similar photos of them emerged.
The Aladdin picture was taken at an Arabian-Nights-themed annual dinner for teachers, parents and administrators at a posh Vancouver private school. The photo appeared in the 2000-01 yearbook for West Point Grey Academy.
Shortly after the photo emerged, Trudeau apologized for having indulged in what he acknowledged was a racist act of wearing brownface, and confessed to another: wearing makeup during a high-school talent show, while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O).
The second photo was taken during Trudeau’s time at Brébeuf, a private school in Montreal.
Then Thursday morning, Global News published a video of a young Trudeau in blackface, showing him sticking out his tongue for the camera and raising his arms over his head, part of a montage of people apparently goofing around in a setting that’s hard to discern.
Georges Laraque, a hockey player who attended Brébeuf in the years after Trudeau, said he does not recall anyone wearing blackface during his time there. He also defended the Liberal leader against some of the recent backlash, saying blackface is racist when it is used to amplify or satirize African-American stereotypes.
“From what I remember, I never, ever see somebody do that,” he said. “If I did, back in the time, I wouldn’t care — I would have laughed.”
Some Liberal Cabinet members denounced the images, but refused to distance themselves from the prime minister, insisting that he has learned from his past mistakes.
“These indefensible images bring back many painful memories of racism that I and other racialized Canadians have experienced throughout our lives,” Natural Resource Minister Amarjeet Sohi said in a statement Thursday.
Naheed Nenshi, the Muslim mayor of Calgary, said the incident is a reminder “in the worst possible way” that people considered allies against racism “still need a little bit of education.”
“I think for me and for a lot of people from minority communities, it really makes you start to think, ‘when is this ever going to end?’” he told Postmedia.
David Taras, a political communications professor at Mount Royal University, said the remainder of the Liberal campaign could hinge on whether Trudeau is able to “change the channel” on the news cycle.
He said Trudeau will likely do whatever he can to “pretend this away,” but the campaign narrative might have already changed for good.
“I think this adds to a narrative that he’s very privileged, he comes from a cloistered environment and that he doesn’t have good judgment,” Taras said.
“It’s part of a continuing critique, a continuing narrative that’s building up.”
He said the Liberals have relied on ethnic communities, women and young voters to achieve power. Without support from those communities, the campaign could crumble.
— With files from Canadian Press and Postmedia News