DUBAI: Arabs and Canadians have reacted with shock and dismay as photos taken at a private school in 2001 and other events once again call into question Justin Trudeau’s carefully crafted image as a champion of inclusivity and diversity.
The confusion over the Canadian prime minister’s public persona has become a hot issue in the campaign for the Oct. 21 election, with surveys showing the ruling Liberal Party losing slight ground to its Conservative rivals in what may be an indication of growing disillusionment among its core supporters.
The image that stirred up the firestorm showed Trudeau in brownface at an Arabian Nights-themed party when he was a 29-year-old teacher at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver. In the photo, Trudeau is wearing a turban and robe, with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck. He is standing beside four young women with his hands around one of them.
The tradition of brownface and blackface — white people painting their faces darker — was common in North America until it came to be viewed as a racist caricature.
A day after Trudeau admitted his behavior was racist and apologized, a video emerged of his face and limbs covered in black makeup. He is seen laughing, making faces and sticking his tongue out.
Further embarrassing Trudeau, a second photo, dating back to his high school days, surfaced in which he is seen wearing blackface as he sings a Jamaican folk song popularized by Harry Belafonte, the American singer and civil rights activist.
The two photos and the video have raised troubling questions about the character of a politician who rose to high office four years ago on a platform of social justice, gender equality and indigenous and minority rights.
The revulsion felt by millions of Canadians was arguably summed up best by Jagmeet Singh, the plain-speaking leader of the New Democratic Party.
“I think he needs to answer for it,” Singh said. “Who is the real Mr. Trudeau? Is it the one behind closed doors, the one when the cameras are turned off that no one sees? Is that the real Mr. Trudeau? Because more and more, it seems like it is.”
Another Canadian who did not mince words is Noor El-Kadri, a University of Ottawa professor and president of the Canadian Arab Federation. In an interview to CTV News, he described Trudeau’s behavior as “outrageous ... racist to the bone.”
Such harsh criticism was unimaginable when Trudeau became the 23rd prime minister of Canada following the 2015 federal election. At the time, Trudeau’s multiculturalist image invited comparisons with his intellectual-activist father, Pierre Trudeau, who served as the 15th prime minister of Canada and leader of the Liberal party between 1968 and 1984.
But the scales have fallen from the eyes of many Canadians since his rise to power.
“At a time when we see Mr. Trudeau — he’s talking a lot about inclusion and diversity and all these things, this uncovers what is inherent within him. This is truly not the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau,” El-Kadri said.
His views were echoed by Mustafa Farooq, executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, who said: “The wearing of brownface is reprehensible, and harkens back to a history of racism and an Orientalist mythology which is unacceptable.”
Even Trudeau supporters are finding it hard to gloss over their leader’s past behavior. “Although it wasn’t his intention to be racist, it is inexcusable and shocking to see blackface and brownface images of our prime minister online,” Hussein Koteiche, a Lebanese-Canadian consultant based in Toronto, told Arab News.
Truth be told, Trudeau is no stranger to political scandal or controversy. In 2010, it was revealed that he earned $1.3 million in public-speaking fees from charities and school boards across Canada. He was criticized for accepting these payments even after becoming an MP, although he promised to pay back any organization that was dissastified.
Then there was the famous trip to India in 2018, when the Canadian first family were photographed in overly lavish local costumes.
Trudeau took part in a series of events that many saw as planned carefully to show off his family’s traditional Indian wardrobe. While visiting Punjab, Trudeau, in a gesture clearly aimed at the large, politically significant Punjabi Canadian population, wore a white sherwani with gold thread work, while the rest of his family wore clothes with a strong gold theme.
In February this year, Trudeau’s reputation as a poster boy of transparency and indigenous peoples’ rights was shredded by what has come to be known as the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Jody Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s attorney general and first indigenous justice minister, testified that officials inappropriately pressured her to help the Canadian engineering company SNC-Lavalin avoid a corruption trial. Trudeau was accused of pressuring her to reach a deal with the firm — and demoting her when she refused to toe the line.
A second minister, Jane Philpott, later resigned as president of the cabinet’s Treasury Board in solidarity with Wilson-Raybould.
The independent federal ethics commissioner released a report in August that said Trudeau violated the conflict of interest act. Directly and through his senior officials, he had used various means to exert influence over Wilson-Raybould, the commissioner said.
Now, as the reverberations of the SNC-Lavalin affair are still being felt across Canada, Trudeau’s “colorful” past is coming back to haunt him.
Writing recently in The Spectator, political commentator Stephen Daisley summed up the controversies this way: “Trudeaupian liberalism is not about equality but about the benevolence of the educated, monied tiers of society towards the downtrodden. They’re doing you a favor. This right-on snobbery had much more to do with Trudeau’s dress-up choices than the bogeyman of ‘white privilege’.”
Trudeau sounds confident he will ride out the storm. “I am continuing to be open with Canadians about the mistake I made,” he said last week. “This is something that I take responsibility for ... I will continue to work every day to fight racism, to fight discrimination, to fight intolerance in this country.”
But Andrew Scheer, who as the Conservative Party leader is hoping to topple the Liberals from power in next month’s election, has no doubt that the prime minister’s school yearbook picture was the real McCoy.
“What Canadians saw ... is someone with a total lack of judgement and integrity,” Scheer said of Trudeau, “and someone who is not fit to govern this country.”