Assessing The Political Fallout Of Trudeau's Blackface Scandal

Sep 19, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Yet another politician and yet another blackface scandal, only this time we are talking about Canada. And it involves the country's prime minister. That's right. Justin Trudeau, the baby-faced Liberal Party leader and prime minister since 2015, admitted last night to dressing up for an Arabian Nights-themed party in a costume that involved him darkening his face, neck and hands with makeup. After Time magazine published the photo, Prime Minister Trudeau apologized.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It was something that I didn't think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do. And I am deeply sorry.

GREENE: This revelation comes as Prime Minister Trudeau is in a tough fight for his job with less than five weeks to go before national elections. Salimah Shivji is a senior reporter at the CBC. She covers Canadian politics and is with us on the line from Ottawa.

Good morning.

SALIMAH SHIVJI: Good morning.

GREENE: So this is a photo that comes when he was teaching at a school before he entered politics? I guess, for our listeners - it's a radio program - could you just describe the photo for us and what we're looking at?

SHIVJI: Yeah, you can see Justin Trudeau. He's wearing a turban. There's a feather, a bit of an elaborate costume in the turban. He's smiling, a big smile on his face, as he has that dark makeup on his face, neck and hands. He's in a photo with four women in the photo, as well. And since that photo has come out, other photos of that same event, that gala party have come out with him smiling, big smile on face, towards the camera.

And in that hasty apology that also you played off the top, he revealed there was another incident in high school. Photos of that are now circulating of him with dark makeup on his face for a talent show where he's saying "Day-O," the song. And video out this morning reported by Global News seems to show a possible third time that he wore dark makeup, black - so-called blackface.

So the question for a lot of Canadians is, is this a pattern here? And the question about his age, as well. You said he was a teacher at the time of that first photo. Teaching in Vancouver, cosmopolitan urban center - a lot of minority groups there. He was 29 years old at the time, not an elected official but really not young either.

So the question for a lot of Canadians looking at these photos is, you know, how could he not have known that that was racist? And what has that evolution been? It really sort of chips at the reputation that Justin Trudeau has carefully built as, you know, the champion of diversity, the defender of minority groups. And it sort of puts that reputation into question as he's in a campaign for reelection.

GREENE: You said hasty apology. I mean, I heard that from his campaign. He came out, you know, pretty quickly and apologized. But I wonder how people are reacting. What's some of the reaction that stand out to you right now?

SHIVJI: Yeah, the reaction was swift, a huge bombshell on the campaign trail. Obviously, Justin Trudeau is in a neck-and-neck fight to be reelected. And one of his opponents is on the progressive side, the left-leaning side of the political spectrum - Jagmeet Singh. He's the leader of the NDP. He's a Sikh. He wears a turban. He's a member of a minority group, of a minority group that Justin Trudeau is fighting for those votes. They turned out en masse for him last time in 2015. A lot of those groups voted for him. Jagmeet Singh was really emotional as he sort of called it disappointing, insulting, a mockery of those minority groups. So Justin Trudeau will be hounded by questions on this over the next few days. It'll be interesting to see how it impacts his campaign, whether some voters will believe his apology and trust that he has changed or whether it will make them move their vote elsewhere.

GREENE: All right. Salimah Shivji is a senior reporter at the CBC in Ottawa talking about these photos that have emerged from the prime minister just as he is fighting for his reelection.

Thanks so much.

SHIVJI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.