Ottawa

'A punch to the gut': What 4 Ottawans have to say about Trudeau photos

Here's what four Ottawans from diverse backgrounds and professional experiences told CBC News Thursday about the photos of Trudeau in blackface — and what they say about Canadian society as a whole.

Liberal leader says privileged upbringing blinded him to harm of posing in blackface

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. (Time.com)

The revelation that Justin Trudeau posed in blackface or brownface on multiple occasions has reverberated throughout the country — and Ottawa is certainly no exception.

On Thursday, the Liberal leader said his privileged upbringing blinded him to the profound harm caused by his past racist acts, adding that he'd never spoke publicly about them because he was embarrassed.

Here's what four Ottawans from diverse backgrounds and professional experiences told CBC Thursday about the photos of Trudeau in blackface — and what they say about Canadian society as a whole.

Their comments have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Rev. Anthony Bailey

Minister at Parkdale United Church

One of the things that this points out to me is the privilege — that there's some people who get to do things and not factor in the impact on people. Blackface, that kind of behaviour, suggests that you have the privilege of being innocuous, of being uninformed, so to speak. But I think he should have known.

This is not just a personal action, [which] is bad enough. We live in a society where, systemically, this is allowed to happen, where people [are] allowed to plead ignorance, because it's not their lived reality. And I think that the way that this gets manifested in policies in systemic ways needs to be addressed.

Some people I've heard on radio today say, "What's the big deal? It's just a costume!" It's not. The implications, the tropes, the way in which we see the hierarchy of humanity — all of that is mixed into this.

Rachel Decoste

Media critic and policy analyst, sought Liberal nomination in Ottawa-Orléans more than a decade ago

It felt like a punch in the gut. It's very disappointing to see the son of Pierre Elliott Trudeau in blackface, because me and many of us who are second-generation Canadian, our parents came under the era of Pierre Elliott Trudeau.

He's the one that opened the door for people of colour to come to Canada, and we would have hoped those values of inclusion and diversity would have been passed on to his son.

We still face barriers when it comes to employment, law enforcement, carding by police, education. And I would like to see — beyond words, beyond apologies, which are appreciated — I would like to see concrete actions to address that. I think that would be a better way to show that you're sorry.

Errol Mendes

University of Ottawa law professor, former commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission

This struck me as being something which is so prevalent throughout Canada, all the time: unconscious racism. 

It should be a teachable moment. What have you learned since then? What have you done since then? Are you continuing that unconscious racism into your present occupation, your present leadership? That's the most important stuff, which I don't think has been fully discussed.

It is basically a degrading, dehumanizing stereotype — the fact that you are categorizing a certain group of people into something which is far beyond what their reality is. That's where I think is the hurt. And unless you fully understand that, we're not going to go much further than condemning Justin Trudeau. We have to understand what's at the bottom of this.

Sheena Zain

Former owner of Bank Street store Aziz & Company

Every politician, everyone who wants to lead any of us in our communities and our society, should be absolutely held accountable for what they're done in their adulthood. I think, though, that it's an opportunity also to see how that leader may have changed and grown in their adulthood, as I think all of us have.

There's no question, I wish he had brought it up himself. I wish he had brought it up in 2015 when he was running. I wish he'd brought it up when he was running for the Liberal leadership.

I can though, understand, as someone who has made my own mistakes. You know, I'm an able-bodied woman, I'm a heterosexual woman, and in my own past I have said things that I'm very ashamed of, that I would never say now. I know better about marginalized communities. I can understand wanting to just forget it — wanting to forget the mistakes that we've made in the past and the foolish things that we've done.

With files from Adrian Harewood, CBC Radio's All In A Day, and Radio-Canada

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