Trudeau's blackface scandal hit Nenshi like 'sucker punch'

The scandalous revelation that Justin Trudeau has in the past appeared in blackface has sparked conversation and displeasure among Calgary's liberal candidates and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

Calgary candidates weigh in on the Liberal leader

Calgary Mayor says he didn't think Trudeau intended to be racist. (The Canadian Press)

The scandalous revelation that Justin Trudeau has in the past appeared in blackface has sparked conversation and displeasure among Calgary's liberal candidates and Mayor Naheed Nenshi.

The Calgary mayor said when he first saw the pictures it felt like a "sucker punch."

"I think for me and for a lot of people from minority communities, it really makes you start to think when is this ever going to end," he said on Thursday. 

"You're reminded in the worst possible way that people you respect, people you admire, people who were allies in this battle with you still need a little bit of education."

Trudeau's campaign team quickly moved to contain the growing furor Thursday after a yearbook photo surfaced of him in brownface at a 2001 "Arabian Nights" costume party and two other similar incidents came to light.

However, Nenshi doesn't believe Trudeau intended to be racist.

"It is, in fact, fair for the prime minister to say 'Look I was stupid … but I have also spent my time in this role fighting for the rights of everyone,'" said Calgary's mayor. 

"It is an equally fair statement for others to question other political leaders and say 'Well, it's not just that you did something stupid 15 years ago or you made a speech in Parliament, it's the totality of your record since that.'"

Nenshi says he wouldn't hesitate to raise the controversy and his displeasure about this "complex and nuanced issue" if he were to meet again with Trudeau.

Trudeau: 'I let a lot of people down'

2 years ago
Duration 1:14
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says his decision to get made up in blackface was a bad idea, and that he let a lot of people down. 1:14

The Liberal Party of Canada leader attended a campaign event in Winnipeg on Thursday and apologized directly to racialized Canadians after more bombshell images surfaced of him in blackface.

"I am wary of being definitive about this. The recent pictures I had not remembered," Trudeau said when pressed by reporters about the number of incidents.

'This sparks a bigger discussion'

Trudeau also held a conference call with Liberal candidates around the country — which included Nirmala Naidoo, the Liberal candidate for Calgary-Skyview.

"This morning he should've been on the campaign trail and he wasn't. He spent about an hour on the phone with all of us candidates from coast to coast. In a very tearful way, he felt that he'd let us down and he said that he was going to do better," she said.

Naidoo said she believes Trudeau's apology is sincere and that as a woman of colour, she hopes this sparks a bigger discussion about racism.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau is shown in this 2001 photo published in the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau was teaching at the time. (

"Let's talk about it. Let's move this narrative forward because I've faced racism from the day I was born. I welcome the discussion," said Naidoo.

She still supports Justin Trudeau, even though she was disappointed by the photo.

"Seeing it was definitely deflating but I look at the track record of the Liberal government," she explained.

Naidoo says she's known Trudeau for five years and that the government is more diverse than ever and its policies have stood up for marginalized Canadians.

"I really believe his apology. He's ashamed of himself and I truly believe him," she said.

Calgary MP Kent Hehr said in a news release on Thursday he is "deeply disappointed in the prime minister's past actions.  

"The person depicted in those pictures is not the Justin Trudeau that I know. He took the time to apologize for his offensive actions. I believe that he is truly remorseful," said Hehr.

This work has been continued by Justin Trudeau and our government's commitment to diversity and inclusion, and work towards eliminating racism and discrimination. 

Hehr says he's proud of all the work Justin Trudeau has done so far and that they've recently launched a federal anti-racism strategy that's focused on addressing issues in employment, social participation, and justice for racialized Canadians.

"However, it is clear that more needs to be done," said Hehr.

"To move forward from this, in my view, we need to have an open and difficult conversation about unconscious bias, systemic racism, and privilege, as well as continuing to enact policies that address racism."

Political strategist weighs in 

Zain Velji, a political strategist in Calgary, says Justin Trudeau could turn the "brownface" fiasco into a sincere conversation about diversity and what it means for people who have been marginalized.

"To extend this beyond a conversation of just himself but to talk about what multiculturalism, pluralism, diversity in this country actually are, versus what we say they are," he said.

​Velji says he expects responses from Liberal candidates across the country will be uniform and singular and he presumes key messages were already distributed.

"They should do what he did not last night which is to say that this is a moral reckoning for our country and let's use this moment to have this conversation about race relations," said Velji.

"That's the conversation I feel like the country needs more so than the political spin over the course of the next 30 days to secure a political seat or a party victory."

With files from Kathleen Harris


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