Canadians have long been aware that Justin Trudeau likes to dress up.
His tendency to appropriate dress and customs from other cultures has prompted gentle mockery from rival politicians and the media: on a trip to India last year, he was photographed in a kurta on numerous occasions. He has Indigenous art tattooed his shoulder. He wears Ramadan socks and dances to bhangra music.
But the emergence of three damning images of the Canadian prime minister in blackface have shattered the prime minister’s carefully curated image as a progressive leader.
The incident has landed the prime minister in hot water as his Liberal party fights to secure another four-year term in a tightly contested federal election.
Trudeau quickly apologized – “I’m pissed off at myself. I’m disappointed in myself,” he told reporters – but the damage may already have been done, said Amarnath Amarasignam, a professor of religion at Queens University.
“I have a difficult time seeing him wiggle his way out of this one. He’s not an authentic kind of messenger on the race issue. He’s not an authentic messenger on the discrimination issue because he’s never led that conversation in the country before” he said.
The timing for Trudeau is particularly bad: only weeks ago, the prime minister publicly castigated the Conservative leader, Andrew Scheer, over a recently unearthed video clip from 2005, in which Scheer expressed skepticism over the idea of gay marriage.
Scheer has seized on the blackface images, saying Trudeau “has lost the moral authority to govern”.
But the Conservative leader also has to grapple with that fact members of his own party have a history of racist or homophobic statements and social media posts. Scheer told reporters he would stand by candidates who showed genuine remorse for previous actions – a standard he appeared unprepared to offer to Trudeau.
“The more we get caught up in dichotomization of ‘You said something racist and therefore you’re bad’, the more we’re likely to miss the real point,” said Aditya Rao, an Ottawa-based human rights lawyer. “I worry that people are looking to score political points off of this.”
While Trudeau will likely sustain political damage in the coming days, he’s unlikely to be facing an existential crisis, said Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
The immediate winners may be the leftwing New Democratic party. The NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, gave a powerful speech on Wednesday, in which he described the chilling impact the images had on him – and on millions of other Canadians who faced racism growing up.
“The kids that see this image, the people that see this image, are going to think about all the times in their life that they were made fun of, that they were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” Singh said.
But that boost for the NDP may fade away as the election draws closer: progressive voters turned off by Trudeau’s escapades are unlikely to transfer their support to Scheer’s party. “A lot of those people will just fall back to the Liberals, because their primary objective will be to vote against the Conservatives … It’s going to be a rough few days for the Liberals, but I don’t think it’s gonna move the needle in the polls much as the Conservatives might hope,” said Wiseman.
Beyond the immediate political frenzy, the emergence of Trudeau’s blackface images has also cast a spotlight on a deeper thread of systematic racism in Canada.
Canada’s Indigenous population is disproportionately represented among murder victims, prison inmates and the child welfare system. First Nation communities struggle with enduring poverty and exclusion. Black residents of Toronto are 20 times more likely to be shot dead by the police than their white neighbours.
“Canadians generally see racism through the lens of what we are not. We are not the United States. We are not Europe. We’re not having tiki-torch marches,” said Amarasignam. “We always feel like we’re kind of ‘above the rest’ when it comes to issues of race and racism and discrimination.”
Balpreet Singh of the World Sikh Organization, describe Trudeau’s use of blackface as “mocking” and “hurtful” – but then pointed to Quebec’s provincial government which recently introduced legislation banning public sector employees from wearing religious symbols – a law that disproportionately targets visible minorities.
“A picture of the prime minister in blackface is bad. But the fact that there’s a province in Canada that is telling the members of certain religious groups that they’re second-class citizens and won’t be employed – that’s really a thousand times worse,” he said.