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Trudeau Apologizes After Brownface Photo Surfaces

OTTAWA — The re-election campaign of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada was thrown into turmoil on Wednesday when a photograph surfaced of him wearing brownface makeup at a 2001 private school party.

The photograph had been taken when Mr. Trudeau, then a 29-year-old teacher, attended an “Arabian Nights” themed costume gala at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, British Columbia, according to Time magazine, which published the image.

Speaking with reporters aboard his campaign plane, Mr. Trudeau, who has long championed the rights of racial minorities in Canada, confirmed that he was in the photo and that he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.”

“This is something I shouldn’t have done many years ago,” Mr. Trudeau said. “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.”

He added: “I’m going to be asking Canadians to forgive me.”

The photograph appeared in the school’s 2000-01 yearbook, Time said, adding that it had obtained a copy of the yearbook, The View, from a Vancouver businessman who first saw the image in July and felt that it should be made public.

Mr. Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader, began his re-election campaign just one week ago. Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader and Mr. Trudeau’s main challenger in the Oct. 21 vote, said the photograph reflected “someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity, and someone who is not fit to govern this country.”

The image drew comparisons to the scandal that enmeshed Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia earlier this year, when a photograph surfaced that had been published in a medical school yearbook 35 years earlier.

Initially, Mr. Northam apologized for appearing in the yearbook photo, which shows a man in blackface makeup standing next to someone wearing a Klan robe and hood. But he later insisted that he was actually not either of the people in the picture. Mr. Northam has refused calls to resign and remains in office.

The image of Mr. Trudeau — which also shows his arms wrapped around a woman he described as “a close friend” — quickly became the dominant topic on Canadian news websites.

Many Canadians are of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent, and Mr. Trudeau has four Sikhs in his cabinet. Those communities have been an important source of support for the Liberals and Mr. Trudeau, particularly in suburban areas around Toronto, which are seen as key electoral battlegrounds.

But on a disastrous state trip to India this year, Mr. Trudeau attracted ridicule for wearing flashy silk and gold-embroidered outfits and pointed, red silk shoes. Though intended as a gesture of respect for Indian culture, it was widely seen in Canada as a cringe-inducing game of dress-up.

On Wednesday night, while repeatedly apologizing for the brownface makeup and the hurt it can cause people who have faced discrimination, Mr. Trudeau said that he had “always been more enthusiastic about costumes than sometimes is appropriate.”

Mr. Trudeau said that he also wore blackface in high school while performing “Day-O,” the Jamaican folk song.

Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, who is a Sikh, said Mr. Trudeau’s Aladdin costume was “insulting” and suggested that the prime minister’s behavior shows that he may not be the same person in private as he portrays himself in public.

Last year, Mr. Trudeau was accused of groping a reporter in 2000 while he was still a private citizen. Mr. Trudeau rejected the allegation, and it was largely forgotten.

“Who is the real Mr. Trudeau?” Mr. Singh asked reporters. “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.”

Mustafa Farooq, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said that he found the photograph “deeply saddening.”

“The wearing of blackface/brownface is reprehensible, and harkens back to a history of racism and an Orientalist mythology, which is unacceptable,” Mr. Farooq said.

The photograph is the second blow to Mr. Trudeau’s carefully cultivated image as a politician offering new, “sunny ways” to politics. Mr. Trudeau has long described himself as a feminist and he formed a gender-balanced cabinet when he took office in 2015. He also made Indigenous issues a priority.

But earlier this year, it emerged that when Jody Wilson-Raybould was justice minister and attorney general, she felt that Mr. Trudeau and an aide improperly pressured her to seek a settlement in a corruption case involving an engineering company based in Montreal. Mr. Trudeau wanted the company, SNC-Lavalin, to be fined to avoid a criminal conviction that would bar it from government work, a large part of its business. His motive, he said, was to save jobs.

But Mr. Trudeau’s explanation appeared to be swamped by a broad sense among many Canadians that he and a group of mostly male aides had ganged up on an Indigenous woman to protect the Liberal Party’s fortunes in Quebec.

Mr. Trudeau said on Wednesday that he had begun calling supporters who belong to racial minority groups and members of his caucus and cabinet to apologize.

Political analysts noted that for Mr. Trudeau, a prime minister of the Instagram age who has meticulously constructed a global image as a progressive, the photograph of him in brownface could be damaging.

“It could repel some progressive voters who are against any kind of cultural appropriation and especially blackface,” said Jean-François Daoust, an expert in public opinion at McGill University. “It can undermine the aura he has tried to create.”

But Mr. Daoust said it was important not to overstate the effects of an 18-year-old event. He noted that the Conservative leader, Mr. Scheer, was also being taken to task for past behavior, including 2005 comments in which he suggested that same-sex couples should not be equally entitled to wed because marriage was meant for “natural procreation.”

Barry Kay, a political-science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, said the revelation was embarrassing and potentially damaging for Mr. Trudeau, but cautioned that it was too early to determine its effect on the campaign. He said the image could reinforce impressions of Mr. Trudeau as inauthentic.

“I am not sure the extent that it will resonate in public opinion in a campaign where everyone has been turning on everyone,” Mr. Kay said.

The publication of the photo comes amid an acrimonious debate about multiculturalism in Quebec, an electorally vital province, which recently passed a law barring public-sector teachers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work.

Mr. Trudeau, whose pro-immigration stance has been a cornerstone of his premiership, has condemned the law, which he has characterized as antithetical to Canadian values. He also suggested that the federal government may join in legal challenges to it.

A member of parliament for Papineau, a multicultural part of Montreal, Mr. Trudeau has been popular with immigrants who have lauded his pro-immigrant stance, including swiftly admitting 25,000 Syrian refugees after taking office.

The issue of cultural appropriation reverberated in Canada in July 2018 when a show “Slav,” by the acclaimed Quebec theater director Robert Lepage, premiered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The show, which featured white actors playing slaves, immediately spawned a backlash and criticism that white artists had recklessly appropriated black culture. Only two of seven cast members were black. The show was canceled after two performances.

Source: NYT > World News

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