What it's like to campaign in Toronto after Trudeau was caught in blackface

A new topic was top of mind for federal election candidates who were door-knocking in Toronto Thursday — photos and video of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in racist makeup.

Some Liberal candidates are standing by their leader, but other people question his ability to govern

This image was part of an April 2001 newsletter from the West Point Grey Academy. Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is under fire after multiple images have emerged showing him in either brownface or blackface. (West Point Grey Academy)

Liberal candidate Arif Virani spent much of Thursday as he has the last several days — campaigning in his riding of Parkdale-High Park and speaking to prospective voters about the issues that matter to them.

But today, there was one key difference. He had to answer questions about why the leader of his party has repeatedly been caught in blackface.

"For some people it's top of mind," Virani said. "Other people are concerned about basic issues that we're hearing constantly."

The Liberal campaign is in full-blown damage control mode over the scandal, which is threatening to put the Trudeau brand and the party's electoral fortunes in jeopardy.

Trudeau, known globally for his "diversity is our strength" mantra, is now making international headlines after photographs and a video emerged showing him in racist makeup. He apologized late Wednesday and admitted his past actions were racist.

He said Thursday his privileged upbringing blinded him to the profound harm caused by his past racist acts.

The Liberal leader said he did not understand at the time how hurtful his actions were and, as a result, he can't remember exactly how many times he has worn blackface makeup.

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

"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.

"I think the question is, 'How can you not remember that?' The fact is, I didn't understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day. I have always acknowledged I come from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot."

Speaking out against racism

For NDP candidate Paul Taylor, who is also running in Parkdale-High Park, that apology rang hollow. He told CBC News that by doing this, Trudeau has essentially mocked people's lived experiences.

"People are disappointed, disgusted, and they want better," he said.

"That's what I'm hearing at the door — people feel like they would like a prime minister that's actually going to stand up against racism, speak out against racism, and not actually be perpetuating it."

Global News obtained this video of Justin Trudeau in blackface at an unspecified event. 0:58

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the incidents prove Trudeau is not fit to hold the office of prime minister.

"Like all Canadians, I was extremely shocked and disappointed when I learned of Justin Trudeau's actions this evening," Scheer said Wednesday. "Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019.

"And what Canadians saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country."

'I have confidence in my leader'

But Virani told CBC News that's just not the case. "I have confidence in my leader," he said, pointing to the Liberals' national anti-racism strategy as an example.

"That, to me, is a man that I want to continue to support. That is why I have confidence in him — because I know that he is a person that actually believes what he is talking about," he said.

"The images I have seen do not represent the man that I know as the leader of my caucus and the leader of this country."

Omar Alghabra, Liberal candidate in Mississauga Centre, told CBC Radio's As It Happens that he can't defend what Trudeau did in his past, but the man he knows today is a champion for human rights.

"People around the world look to Mr. Trudeau and have been looking towards Mr. Trudeau as a voice of thoughtful sanity, as a voice of championing rights of minorities, rights of individuals, and they've seen him in action," Alghabra said.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer react after Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau apologized for appearing in brownface in 2001 on Wednesday. 0:57

Virani said the photos aren't dominating as an issue when he's knocking on doors, and people are more inclined to want to talk about issues like climate change and housing affordability.

When the photos do come up, Virani said, he is asking people to think about the "folly of youth."

Trudeau was 29 years old teaching at a Vancouver private school in the first photo that emerged.

"The prime minister is under particular close microscope, perhaps the biggest microscope in the country," Virani said.

But Taylor wasn't cutting Trudeau any slack just because these incidents happened several years ago.

"Just because something happened a long time ago doesn't mean we excuse it," he said.

"It wasn't that long ago."

About the Author

Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. He enjoys a good story and playing loud music in dank bars. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at

With files from Kathleen Harris and As It Happens


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.