'Difficult to see': MLA Gordon McNeilly weighs in on blackface scandal

Island Liberal Gordon McNeilly says he was taken aback by the images of Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface which surfaced this week, but wouldn't call the Liberal leader a racist.

Island Liberal says he was 'taken aback' by images of Justin Trudeau that surfaced this week

Liberal MLA Gordon McNeilly says the Trudeau blackface scandal is an opportunity to have an open conversation about race in Canada. (Nicole Williams/CBC)

P.E.I. Liberal MLA Gordon McNeilly said he was taken aback by the images of Liberal leader Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface which surfaced this week.

"But as somebody of mixed race, do I think that person is racist? No. Not at all," he said. 

Trudeau apologized Wednesday for wearing blackface and a turban for a 2001 gala at the Vancouver private school where he was a teacher. He also admitted that at a talent show when he was in high school, he wore black makeup and sang Day-O, a Jamaican folk tune made famous by black American singer Harry Belafonte. A third incident, a short video from the early 1990s, showing Trudeau in blackface, has also since surfaced.  

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. (

McNeilly said it's important to look at the bigger picture and what can potentially be learned from such incidents. 

He says blackface is never OK but also admits that until three years ago, he didn't know what the term meant. 

McNeilly was elected as the MLA for Charlottetown-West Royalty earlier this year. It's believed he is the first black person to win a seat in the legislature on Prince Edward Island. 

"I don't think this should be put under racist context," he said, "I think this is someone who has been educated since that time." 

Society taught me, 'You look a little different.'— Gordon McNeilly

McNeilly said his father came to Canada from Trinidad to "work his tail off" and that he has tried to follow in his father's footsteps.

"He was my inspiration," said McNeilly. "Everything I've learned, I've learned from him and my mother. " 

He said it's because of his family's background that he is able to talk about the issue of race.

"People don't know what it's like to live in somebody else's skin and I think that's where we need to go when it comes to race," he said. "We need to see past the outside and there's some amazing things on the inside." 

McNeilly doesn't recall conversations about race while growing up. He said he became aware of his differences once he stepped out into the world. 

"Society taught me, 'You look a little different,'" he said.  

An opportunity for conversation

McNeilly said this particular moment could be an opportunity to have a conversation about race. 

He said he hasn't had any people of colour come forward to talk with him about the incident. He said he spent some time on Thursday evening knocking on doors in his district in hopes of starting some conversations about race and Trudeau's blackface incidents.

I think the apology is there. And I think this will improve race relations in our country.— Gordon McNeilly

He says the conversations that came out of it were interesting and important.

"Those pictures are difficult to see because we've gotten to know our prime minister, good or bad ... but I think the apology is there. And I think this will improve race relations in our country," he said. 

"If we can take the positives out of this and move forward, I think our country is going to be better as a whole." 

More P.E.I. news

With files from Main Street


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