In Quebec, Trudeau's opponents and supporters shrug off blackface controversy

The campaign abruptly shifted focus Thursday, after photos and video emerged of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing racist makeup. But there was little appetite in Quebec for raking Trudeau over the coals.

Pipeline politics and Céline Dion concert pushed scandal out of francophone newspapers

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau reacts as he makes a statement in regards to photo coming to light of himself from 2001 wearing "brownface" during a scrum on his campaign plane in Halifax, N.S., on Wednesday, September 18, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Quebec had been the epicentre of debates about identity politics so far in the federal election campaign, with party leaders forced to confront to the popularity of a new law on religious symbols.

But the campaign shifted focus abruptly on Thursday, after photos and video emerged of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing racist makeup. The desire to talk identity politics in the province evaporated just as quickly. 

Even though Trudeau's criticism of Quebec's secularism law has been controversial in the province, none of his usual opponents on the issue were itching to rake him over the coals. 

"I can understand that some people were hurt by these pictures. But Mr. Trudeau said that he was sorry. I think we have to talk about something else," said Premier François Legault, who has clashed with Trudeau over the law, also known as Bill 21.

The leader of the sovereignist Parti Québécois, Pascal Bérubé, went so far as to play down the condemnations issued by Trudeau's federal rivals.

"It's a political campaign. They want to make sure that Mr. Trudeau pays for that," Bérubé told reporters in Quebec City. "You can disagree with him on many issues, that's my case, but he's not a racist."

Justin Trudeau on representing diversity in Papineau

4 years ago
Duration 0:50
Liberal leader says he's learned alot from speaking with people in his Montreal riding.

Support holds steady in Trudeau's riding

Outside the bubble of professional politics, few voters indicated to CBC/Radio-Canada they would change their vote based on the images of Trudeau appearing in blackface.

In a predominantly Haitian neighborhood in north-end Montreal, which Trudeau has represented as an MP since 2008, his years-long involvement with the community appeared to have bought him a fair degree of goodwill.

CBC News and Radio-Canada reporters interviewed more than a dozen voters in the riding of Papineau on Thursday. All but one said they would still vote for Trudeau.

Seth Atoapoma, 28, said he was divided over whether to feel angry at the nearly 20 year-old photograph of the prime minister dressed in blackface. "I am black, so the blackface issue is something I do care about. But then again it's 2019."

Atoapoma, who works in a hair salon in the riding, added: "I find him a good prime minister. I'm still voting for him. He does do a lot for us." 

Wednesday night's Céline Dion concert was featured more prominently on the front pages of many Quebec papers on Thursday than the news about Justin Trudeau. (CBC)

In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, the Black Coalition of Quebec said Trudeau's government had proven itself an ally on several issues central to the black community.

"Those who criticize Justin Trudeau are swimming in a pool of hypocrisy because they haven't done anything to promote black or cultural communities," the statement said.

Even outside Montreal, where Liberal support is weaker, few voters seemed inclined to vote against Trudeau because of the images.

In Saint-Hyacinthe, about 65 kilometres east of Montreal, none of the four locals interviewed by a CBC News reporter said the controversy would affect their ballot. 

"I don't think that is important. I think people should talk about something else," said Yves Brouillette, an undecided voter. 

"I think that happened 20 years ago. It was a mistake. But who doesn't make mistakes in life?"

Only passing interest in French newspapers

The French media in Quebec also shrugged off Wednesday night's revelations that Trudeau had dressed in blackface once in high school and again in 2001 while a teacher at a private school in British Columbia. A third image of him in blackface surfaced in video form Thursday.

Unlike in English Canada, few French newspapers gave prominent coverage to the images.

In Quebec City, Wednesday's Céline Dion concert was featured more prominently on the Thursday front pages of the local papers.

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. (

Le Nouvelliste, a tabloid that serves the electorally strategic district of Trois-Rivières, ran a story about the pictures on page 32.

The main political story on the front page of Montreal's Le Devoir was about Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer's proposal to build an oil pipeline through the province, and the possibility he could ignore Quebec's objections to such a project.

One Journal de Montreal columnist, Richard Martineau, did put the screws to Trudeau. But Martineau, who is often critical of multiculturalism and dismissive of minority groups, seemed mainly interested in accusing Trudeau of hypocrisy, not racism.

On the popular Montreal morning radio show Puisqu il faut se lever, host Paul Arcand and contributor Lise Ravary were more scandalized by the placement of Trudeau's right hand on a woman's chest in the 2001 picture from West Point Grey Academy showing the future prime minister wearing dark makeup as part of an Arabian Nights-themed costume.

"Let's be clear, it's not far from her cleavage," Ravary said.


Jonathan Montpetit is a Senior Investigative Journalist with CBC News, where he covers social movements and democracy. You can send him tips at

With files from Jean-Sébastien Cloutier, Olivia Stefanovich and Alison Northcott

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