Justin Trudeau Has Never Been The Progressive Darling You Thought He Was

Do you need more direct proof that Canada is, just like the US, deeply flawed? Behold Justin Trudeau’s multiple instances of blackface and Canada’s miserable election cycle!

My editor, loath though I am to hear it, routinely tells me that typing I TOLD YOU SO is not a great way to start an article.

But how else do you expect me to jump into a conversation about Justin Trudeau? Our Nice Guy, cutie-patootie, gelled-hair, blue-eyes-like-the-deepest-ocean prime minister, who plenty of Canadians (me, I am talking about me) told you was actually far from the progressive sweetheart he presents himself to be. (Even BuzzFeed was not immune.) Our time to gloat has finally come. He’s been revealing in the past, but most people chose to ignore it: like when he sniped at an Indigenous activist asking him for clean water or when he was accused of applying political pressure on the attorney general (the first Indigenous justice minister ever) to defer prosecution against a major engineering and construction firm based out of Quebec and, look, we’re both bored now, so let’s get to the blackface.

Did we expect the latest news coming out of Canada to be that Trudeau is embroiled in some racist scandal? Not specifically — and this is about as mundane as racist acts go — but clearly only because he lacks imagination. The real question isn’t “How did this even happen?” but rather “How did it take so long for someone to dig this up?”

Yesterday afternoon, Time published a photo from a 2000–2001 private high school yearbook showing Trudeau, who was then a 29-year-old English teacher at this school, wearing brownface for an “Arabian Nights”–themed party, replete with a turban and Genie-esque cinched robes. Hours later, a photo of him in blackface from his own high school yearbook went public too. Then, my god, another photo showing him at that same “Arabian Nights” party in brownface flanked by two Sikh men also appeared online. Then, a video of him in blackface was published by the Global News. In one evening, Trudeau went from Our Prime Minister Who Has Never Worn Blackface to Our Prime Minister Who Has Worn It More Than Once. I mean, who has the time?

Is this all made worse by the fact that Trudeau wasn’t just some random teen messing around, but rather the son of one of the country’s most popular and beloved prime ministers, and therefore he should have known he would forever be under an unprecedented level of scrutiny? It does! It absolutely does. His past actions are so hypocritical when compared to his current public persona, and it is infuriating. His 2018 family trip to India, where he sported what looked like elaborate bridal clothing, was cringeworthy then — but watching him piously press his hands together in prayer appears even more jarring now.

It’s bad on its face, but it’s made even worse by the very important fact that the Canadian federal election is in just over a month and citizens are left with four choices so unsavory it’s hard to remember a time when it was this bad. Except, I guess, for the last time.

Nearly everyone running appears to be an AI simulation of what the worst-case scenario would be for the country. UK and US politics are so loud, so garish and tacky in their racism, that it makes Canada look quaint — but only by comparison. Canadians, namely white Canadians, still have trouble grasping that racism could even be a constant, daily part of someone’s life.

But with the brownface and blackface revelations about Trudeau, along with him admitting that in high school he sang Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)” in blackface for a talent show — Jesus Christ, Justin — this election cycle has had an unprecedented number of proven racist incidents, even on the supposedly progressive side of the aisle. Progressive Canadians were so worried about Andrew Scheer, that they didn’t have time to pay attention to what Trudeau was up to. Scheer, leader of the Conservative Party, and also a robot who just learned how to smile, has previously been associated with Rebel Media, a media organization that traffics in largely anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant speak. Earlier this year, he spoke at the same conference as Faith Goldy, a well-known white nationalist. He’s tried to block marriage equality and has compared same-sex marriage to counting a dog’s tail as its leg, and more recently, has been mimicking Trump with his concerns over “illegal” border crossings.

The face of the leader of the People’s Party of Canada, Maxime Bernier, was all over billboards in Quebec and beyond next to the tagline “Say NO to mass immigration,” as if Montreal is Ellis Island. His party allegedly doxed a Muslim activist and called him a terrorist; Bernier reportedly employed “a white supremacist who, for a time, led a seminal neo-Nazi operation,” and has a lot of alt-right support.

Bernier is an insignificant part of the election but, like a lot of fringe candidates who are louder than their actual tangible influence, he gets an outsize amount of coverage. On the heels of Trudeau’s brown- and blackface scandals, he tweeted, “[Trudeau] is the master of identity politics and the Libs just spent months accusing everyone of being white supremacists. He definitely is the biggest hypocrite in the country.” I do not know if I have ever experienced a pain quite like having to whisper, to myself, in a darkened room in the middle of the night when I first read this tweet: I guess technically Maxime is right?

What’s really infuriating about this news cycle is how much insincere virtue signaling will and has come from the details of Trudeau’s past behavior. People who should otherwise be preoccupied with cleaning up their own house now have a way to shirk their own responsibility.

Jagmeet Singh, the greenest, newest face in the leadership campaign, is another option for the leader of the New Democratic Party, and is currently third in the polls. But Singh himself is flawed on issues of race — he’s been criticized in the past for speaking at a 2015 pro-Khalistan rally. (It is worth noting, though, that being a brown man who advocates for his own community is somehow more threatening than a white man doing the same.) He also comes off as woefully ill-prepared to speak on his own party’s platform; as the third-party candidate in this election, Singh is likely to just split the vote, thereby giving the Conservatives a back door in with a minority.

Though Singh may be flawed, he’s done the best job of all the candidates at responding to Trudeau’s latest scandal. “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, were hurt, that they were hit, that they were insulted, that they were made to feel less because of who they are,” Singh said in a press conference yesterday. “I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada. You might feel like giving up on yourselves. I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved. I don’t want you to give up on Canada, and please don’t give up on yourselves.”

But Singh — a Sikh man who wears a turban and is actually brown as opposed to whatever shade Trudeau’s brownface is supposed to represent — is facing an uphill battle. Is Canada ready for a nonwhite prime minister, one who wears his religion on his head, no less? Everyone seems to be asking the question, which is idiotic — because if you have to ask, it’s likely you’re not “ready.”

Instead, it seems Canadians are more accepting of a prime minister who dresses up as a brown person than they are of an actual brown person. Regardless, what kind of sincere conversation can we even have around Singh if nearly everyone in the federal election press pool is white?

Finally, there’s Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party and the only woman leader in this election. Her big scandal is being “overtired” at a press gallery dinner and cursing in her speech. It is, comparatively, adorable insofar as governmental scandals go. Cute! It’s practically cute.

The bar for this election was always set laughably low. Trudeau, an attractive white man with a pleasing public profile who is not President Trump, and who is running a country that has a somewhat steady economy, had to do very little to skate by in this election. No one is defending Trudeau. There’s nothing to defend. Our prime minister has built his reputation on being the Reasonable One, the Non-Trump, the Good Boy (except, of course, when he and his advisers are browbeating the attorney general to go easy on a company in order to help their election chances). He’s the one Melania actually wants. He looks like Prince Eric, and I have seen the greatest minds of my generation driven to madness at the sight of his forearms, set free from his button-ups when he rolls up the sleeves. We know you wanted him to be good, an obvious antidote to Trump. But, unfortunately, though Canadians tend to do things with less zeal, it seems our leaders are pulling the same shit anyway.

This is not to say that Trudeau will lose — there are lots of people who find what he did objectionable, but not enough to vote for the far more objectionable Scheer. And there are brown people who don’t like the fact that Singh is unwilling to assimilate, and they likely won’t give him their vote. Such is the far reach of white supremacy and the desire to remain proximate with whiteness. (Never underestimate the power a clean-cut white man from a rich family has over immigrants who are still struggling to find their place in a country that repeatedly tells them they’re not wanted unless they’re cheap.)

I moved to the US in January, and I have spent most of my time telling people that I didn’t really miss Canada. Except that I do miss Coffee Crisp and Eat-More bars and being able to go to the doctor and not worry too much about how much it will cost. What I don’t miss — and have never missed — is how little awareness there is of the quiet bigotry in our politics.

One benefit of Trump is that he gave a clear and present symbol of what a lot of marginalized people had been talking about in the US for eons. So here. You wanted something more direct, something clear to hang your hat on? You got it.

The federal election is on Oct. 21. Canadians can vote for a man who wore brownface and blackface on more than one occasion, a man who was associated with far-right figures and opposed same-sex marriage, a man who wants Canadians to say “no” to immigrants, a man who, at best, seems ill-equipped for the job, and, at worst, will be plagued by racism for the rest of his political career, or a woman who has a pretty minimal chance of winning much to begin with.

Which of five choices, ranging from less than ideal to truly personally offensive, will Canadians pick? It’s not a Canadian election unless citizens are marching themselves to a polling station with a pit in their stomachs, aware that it never gets better. Because it only gets worse.

It’s fun, most of the time, to say I told you so. This time, however, I could’ve done without the satisfaction. ●

Skip to footer