Nfld. & Labrador

N.L. MP candidates criticize Trudeau brownface

St. John's East incumbent Nick Whalen is publicly denouncing Justin Trudeau's decision to don racist makeup in 2001.

Incumbents Nick Whalen and Scott Simms among those chiming in on photos of Liberal Party leader

St. John's East incumbent Nick Whalen says treating another culture as a costume is oppressive.

Liberal Party candidates in Newfoundland and Labrador are among the voices weighing in on Justin Trudeau's decision to don brownface in 2001.

St. John's East incumbent Nick Whalen tweeted early Thursday morning that he'd spoken with his children about photos of Trudeau in racist makeup published Wednesday.

"Chatted with my kids … and kids immediately appreciate that dressing up as cultures is wrong ... is disrespectful ... and oppressive," he wrote.

Whalen told CBC's Here and Now that he didn't hear much of a reaction from voters on the local front while knocking on doors in St. John's East on Thursday, but said politicians need to be held to a higher standard.

Whalen also said Trudeau's apology is exactly what was required in this case, but he was shocked to learn of what happened in 2001. He said that wasn't the Justin Trudeau that he met in 2013, or who he knows today.

The photos, featuring a 29-year-old Trudeau at a themed gala in Vancouver, have been the subject of criticism from both within and outside his party since they were published Wednesday evening by Time magazine.

Trudeau told reporters he wore the makeup as part of an Aladdin costume, and he expressed his regret at doing so.

"I take responsibility for my decision to do that. I shouldn't have done it. I should have known better. 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 said.

This image was part of an April 2001 newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy. (West Point Grey Academy)

Coast of Bays-Central-Notre Dame incumbent Scott Simms told CBC News he heard the news was coming but reserved judgment until Trudeau spoke about it.

"When I saw it, I was blown away, set back. It was something," Simms said Thursday

He called the brownface "wrong," and said Trudeau did the right thing by apologizing.

"I'm glad he did what he did, which is to apologize for it profusely, offer no excuses, call it what it was.... exactly what it was, there and then, and talk about the evolution of himself as a person since then.

"I'm sure a lot of us would cringe if we become introspective and look at what we said and what we've done for the past, not just 20 years, but even 10 years. And then you evolve as a person and you realize what you did back then was wrong."

Liberal incumbent Scott Simms, seen here in a 2017 file photo, says Trudeau is his own best defender. (CBC)

Simms said the campaign will move forward as usual, with a lot of issues to deal with. As for Trudeau, Simms said the best defence of the Liberal leader's actions should come from Trudeau himself.

"I always found the greatest defender of Justin Trudeau is Justin Trudeau. And I think a defence of him should be heartfelt and in order it to be heartfelt, it really has to come from him," he said. 

"I can defend his policies to a great degree, but on this issue, he will be his best defender."

Federal NDP candidate for St. John's East Jack Harris is facing down Whalen for that seat in the upcoming federal election. Harris told CBC News it's less about his campaign now, but more about how people have been impacted by the Trudeau image. 

"I think that there's a lot of discouragement and disappointment. I think that the response is that people are very regretful ... that we are dealing with this in our country today," Harris said from his campaign headquarters. 

"I think more so the people who are hurt by this, who are reminded of their own hurtful past and present and being victims of discrimination." 

And while not pointing the finger directly at the federal and provincial Liberals for the most recent racism controversies, Harris said there's a problem in Newfoundland and Labrador and across the country of an underlying sense of inequality.

"I think it reminds us that we have a long way to go, both provincially and federally on issues having to do with racism, having to do with indigenous people" he said.    

St. John's East Conservative candidate Joedy Wall declined to comment when asked by CBC News. He said party leader's Andrew Scheer's comments on the issue speak for themselves.

A lot to process

Non-politicians who woke up to the news in Newfoundland and Labrador also grappled with how the photos affected their view of Trudeau.

Prajwala Dixit, a St. John's writer, said she's personally struggled to understand the photos.

"It's a lot to process," she said. "What I would say is not every brown person's reaction — you can't [apply] that reaction to every single brown or black person."

Jose Rivera, head of the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council, believes the controversy is a waste of time.

"[I'm] in shock of how silly this world is, that we are wasting ink and tape on that matter. It's something that happened last century and last century things were completely different," Rivera said.

Rivera said every person who has come through the doors of the council's office has thought the situation to be funny.

He calls the situation ridiculous and feels neither the photo, nor the subsequent fallout will hurt Trudeau's chances of being reelected.

"It's giving the guy more press, more people talking about it. On the other side, those who leaked that thing trying to hurt the guy, I don't think they're going to be taken too seriously. But I might be wrong," he said.

"Fortunately Canadians are better than that. I have been here for 17 years and I have seen that over, and over."  

People outside Memorial University on Thursday morning had a variety of opinions.

"It doesn't really make me feel anything. This is just a costume party," said Kazi Sanzidezanam. "It doesn't have anything to do with the election."

Kazi Sanzidezanam, left, and Fahad Moin say the photos didn't personally bother them. (Gary Locke/CBC)

Sanzidezanam said she didn't see the photo as racially insensitive, and said it wouldn't affect her decision at the ballot box.

"Anyone can dress up as anything. No one is obliged to be just white. You can put brown makeup or black makeup — that's up to you," Fahad Moin said.

But he pointed out that people who wear the turban for religious and cultural reasons may have good reason to be upset.

"Many people I know, they got racially abused for it," he said. "Maybe if you're wearing that and not knowing the actual meaning behind it, that's why they might be hurt."

Sarah Leonard says Trudeau hasn't been as active on race issues as he could be. (Gary Locke/CBC)

"I think you have to look at how he's treated people of colour," said Sarah Leonard, pointing to what she sees as a lack of movement on Indigenous issues such as water rights and the inquiry into missing and murdered women.

"While he has opened up the doors for immigration … I think you have to look at his actions, and not what he says. I don't think he's a racist, but I don't think he's doing as much as he could be."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Zach Goudie and Ramona Dearing

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