Trudeau’s Blackface Scandal Was a Test for Canada. We Failed


Recently a dear friend I hadn’t seen since the federal election campaign asked me what I thought about Justin Trudeau’s blackface debacle.

I was disappointed in the prime minister’s actions, I said.

But I was far more disappointed in the nation, and our response — or lack of response — to Trudeau’s racist acts.

I’ve just returned to Canada after 21 years living in the U.S. and elsewhere and spent considerable time wondering how I would fit into the national conversation, knowing that Canada and I have both changed in the last two decades.

In the U.S. I know where I stand, and it dovetails nicely with my dual American/Canadian identity. I am a vociferous Bernie Sanders supporter, as he pushes to bring the American people into the 21st century and introduce the social programs we take for granted in Canada.

But now, back in B.C., where am I aligned? What social and political causes do I identify with in Canada? As a Black Canadian, I am particularly interested in how race and racism are discussed by people of European descent in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Canada, particularly western Canada, has changed a lot since I was a kid in Banff and Calgary. There are more black and brown faces, more languages on the streets of our big cities and small towns. Where I live now, in Victoria, B.C., it really does feel more diverse than when I left years ago.

Real strides have been made around Indigenous issues. We have Indigenous leaders nationwide and at all levels of government. It all seems so progressive, especially from afar. We routinely acknowledge we’re on the unceded land of First Nations and celebrate Indigenous art in public spaces.

But as I settled into Canada again, I began to feel that these gestures obscure the underlying issues of racism and white supremacy that lead to so many crimes and form the foundation of our colonial past and present-day society.

The 2019 election confirmed my suspicions. The silence around Trudeau’s victory after it was revealed he had worn blackface, on multiple occasions over many years, is deafening.

The unfortunate mistakes of a privileged young man became a national embarrassment. The real tragedy isn’t what Trudeau did. It’s what the Canadian people and political class did by returning this posturing man to Parliament as our prime minister. We sent a message to the world that we lack principle and true fidelity to the progressive causes of pluralism and social justice we espouse.

Going into the election, the expectation was that the Liberal party was on its way to a minority government. Then Trudeau’s bizarre penchant for donning ethnic garb took a more sinister turn as a pattern of him wearing blackface (and body paint) emerged. The revelations landed like a brick. I was certain a price would be paid.

It wasn’t a shock that a man of European descent could be so insensitive to the horrific legacy of institutionalized racism and hatred that blackface represents. But it was shocking that this man, the apparently sophisticated son of our most important modern prime minister who grew up in the public eye, attended the finest schools and was well-travelled and connected, could be so uninformed and unclear about right and wrong at 29. It’s also sad that his parents, whether by neglect or oversight, didn’t intervene to prevent his afro-clad blackface performance of “Day O” in high school.