Toronto – Confessing a “massive blind spot” in his thinking, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau moved to contain a growing furor Thursday after a photo surfaced of him in brownface at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” costume party and two other similar incidents came to light.
With Election Day just a month away in his bid for another term, the 47-year-old Trudeau begged forgiveness from the people of Canada.
“Darkening your face regardless of the context or the circumstances is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” he said. “I should have understood that then, and I never should have done it.”
Time magazine published the photo on Wednesday, saying it was taken from the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Trudeau worked as a teacher before going into politics. It shows the then-29-year-old Trudeau in a turban and robe with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.
“I have always acknowledged I came from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot,” the son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said to applause from a large crowd at a park in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, who is mounting a serious challenge to the prime minister in the Oct. 21 vote, reacted by declaring Trudeau “not fit to govern this country.”
The prime minister, though, gave no sign at all that he might resign, and there were no immediate calls from any leading figures in his Liberal Party to step down. Instead, many Liberals, some of them minorities, rallied around him.
Trudeau has long championed multiculturalism and immigration, with Canada accepting more refugees than the U.S. under the Trump administration. Half of Trudeau’s Cabinet is made up of women, four are Sikhs, and his immigration minister is a Somali-born refugee.
Canada has over 1.9 million people of South Asian descent out of a population of 37 million.
Canadian Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, a Liberal who is Sikh, said that the brownface picture was wrong but that Trudeau has a record of standing up for minorities. Trudeau named Sajjan Canada’s first Sikh defense chief in 2015.
Greg Fergus, a Liberal member of Parliament who is black, said there was a lot of confusion and hurt in the black community but noted that Trudeau apologized. And Fergus pointed out that it was Trudeau who put Viola Desmond, a black woman who refused to leave the whites-only section of a Canadian movie theater in 1944, on the country’s $10 bill.
“I think the real measure of the man, and I think the thing we need to be talking about, is all the amazing things we have done for diversity,” Fergus said.
Mitzie Hunter, a Liberal who is running to lead the party in Ontario provincial politics and is black, tweeted: “I know it is not representative of the man he is. This is a teachable moment for all of us. I accept his apology and I hope Canadians do too.”
The photo of Trudeau was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an “Arabian Nights” theme that year, Trudeau said. He said he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.”
The prime minister said it was not the first time he darkened his face: He once did it while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” during a talent show.
Canada’s Global News TV network also reported a third instance, broadcasting a brief video of Trudeau in blackface while raising his hands in the air and sticking out his tongue. A Liberal Party spokeswoman said the footage was from the early 1990s.
Scheer said his campaign team received the video from a concerned citizen and passed it on to the media.
Asked how many times he has worn brown or blackface, Trudeau said: “I am wary of being definitive about this because the recent pictures that came out I had not remembered.”
He said that he has dedicated himself as a politician to “try and counter intolerance and racism everywhere I can,” and confessed to letting people down. “I stand here today to reflect on that and ask for forgiveness,” he said.
Trudeau is the latest in a string of politicians to get in trouble over racially offensive photos and actions from their younger days. Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam overcame intense pressure to resign after a racist picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook.
But Trudeau was already vulnerable following one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when his former attorney general said he pressured her to halt the prosecution of a company in Quebec. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but the scandal led to resignations and a drop in his ratings earlier this year.
As for the brownface furor, “I am deeply troubled by what this means to Canada. Young kids are not just going to see just one or two but multiple images of the prime minister mocking their lived reality,” said Leftist New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is a Sikh. “This is so hurtful to so many Canadians.”
Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said he was “gobsmacked” by the development.
“That’s the kind of thing you do when you are a frat boy,” Bothwell said. “Maybe at 29 he had no idea that he was going to go on to greatness, but his father would have never done that.”
He added: “The case has never been conclusively made that Justin is a person of substance. I mean, he may well be. But that impression is just not out there.”
Trudeau was also mocked at home and abroad for repeatedly wearing colorful, traditional Indian garb during a visit to India in 2018. It led to a drop in his ratings.
Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said he doesn’t believe the latest furor will cause people to vote differently. Wiseman said race plays a much bigger role in U.S. politics than in Canada.
“This is not the type of scandal that will drive voters to the Conservatives,” he said.