Calgary Liberals try to move on from 'brownface' controversy

Dr. Jag Anand says that when he first saw the photo of Justin Trudeau wearing 'brownface,' it brought back a lot of bad memories of the racism he's encountered on several continents.

Calgary candidates chide Trudeau, doubt Liberal brand has been hurt

Dr. Jag Anand and Jordan Stein are the Liberal candidates in Calgary Forest Lawn and Calgary Confederation. They believe Canadians will forgive Justin Trudeau for the so-called 'brownface' controversy. (Bryan Labby/CBC)

Dr. Jag Anand says that when he first saw the photo of Justin Trudeau wearing "brownface," it brought back a lot of painful memories of the racism he has experienced outside his native India.

In Australia 30 years ago, one of his patients asked to be treated instead by a "white" doctor; in Canada, someone asked him where his taxi was parked, he says.

"It's part of my life, I've grown up with it," Anand said from his campaign office on 17th Avenue S.E., one of the most culturally diverse areas of the city. 

The Liberal candidate for Calgary Forest Lawn says what Trudeau did was wrong. But he says the Liberal leader should be forgiven — even though Trudeau was 29 when he decided to paint his face, neck and hands dark brown for a costume party. 

"What he did was wrong and he apologized and he apologized very sincerely," said Anand, 60. 

Anand, who's been working as a retina surgeon and ophthalmologist in northeast Calgary for more than a decade, was part of a conference call in which the party leader apologized to Liberal candidates last week.

"He's apologized, he's dealt with the issue and he was very quick to accept that what he did was wrong," Anand said.

"His [Trudeau's} actions have clearly demonstrated that he's not racist at all."

Anand says people he's talked to are more upset about how the controversy has been "politicized" by other federal candidates.

Liberal talking points

Another Calgary Liberal candidate had the same message as Anand — that Trudeau apologized, it was a sincere apology and Canadians should look at the leader's track record, which they say proves he is not racist.

Jordan Stein, who is trying to unseat Conservative incumbent Len Webber, says she and her campaign team felt "incredible shame and sadness" after seeing the Trudeau photos.

The other candidates in Calgary Confederation are the Green Party's Natalie Odd, the NDP's Gurcharan Sidhu and Colin Korol with the People's Party.

Stein says the controversy will give Canadians an opportunity to confront racism and talk about it.

"It's important that we don't just say the whole problem is Justin, it's not. It's a Canadian thing. It's part of our history that we need to look at," she said.

Damage to the brand? 

A Mount Royal University political science professor says the controversy will have little impact in Calgary, where it's already predicted voters will send a full slate of Conservatives to Ottawa.

Lori Williams says all of the Liberal candidates in Calgary — including Kent Hehr in Calgary Centre — are considered long shots on Oct. 21.  She says Hehr faces long odds to return to Ottawa.

"For the others, I think, it's just not even in play, it's not even a consideration."

Poll aggregator lists eight of the city's 10 electoral districts as safe seats for the Conservatives. Calgary Centre and Calgary Skyview, where the Liberals won in 2015, are listed as "likely Conservative" and "leaning Conservative." 

Williams says the majority of Albertans have no intention of supporting Trudeau, and the "brownface" controversy simply adds to the list of grievances.

"It's hard to imagine people being more opposed to Justin Trudeau than we hear daily on the streets of Calgary," she said.

"This didn't change their opinion of Justin Trudeau, it just gave them one more thing to dislike about Justin Trudeau. So the political impact in terms of votes isn't going to be significant," said Williams. 

"It's really quite astonishing how deeply disliked he is amongst people who might have even voted for him in the last election." 

There were 473,416 Albertans who voted for the Liberal party in 2015. The Conservatives picked up more than 1.1 million votes. 

Party line

Anand and Stein say they doubt the controversy will deal the party a fatal blow.

"I don't think so. People are very bright, voters are very intelligent and they can see what is political and what is the ground reality," said Anand.

Stein says the controversy has raised an important issue that needs to be discussed: the history of racism, intolerance and discrimination in Canada.

"That message has not really changed in the wake of this. In fact, it makes it even more relevant that we have people that are fighting against forms of racism, intolerance and discrimination and bigotry of all forms," she said. 

Williams agrees. But she says it won't be easy.

"It's easy to criticize somebody for doing something that is inappropriate," she said.

"It's quite a bit more difficult to actually address the problem in a larger way and for all of us to take responsibility rather than pointing fingers at somebody who's done what they shouldn't have," said Williams.

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.


Bryan Labby

Enterprise reporter

Bryan Labby is an enterprise reporter with CBC Calgary. If you have a good story idea or tip, you can reach him at or on Twitter at @CBCBryan.