Justin Trudeau — a self-appointed moral steward in blackface: Robyn Urback

When you run on sanctimony, govern on arrogance and expect perfection, you find yourself in an awful quandary when you fall short of your own standards.

The Liberal leader's days as a progressive icon are over

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)

It is almost too obvious now to point out the rank hypocrisy of the Trudeau brand: one that has zero tolerance for inappropriate touching, except for his own; one that preaches respect for Indigenous Canadians, except when you can get a cheap laugh at a Liberal fundraiser. 

One that claims to run government differently, but uses the same old tactics to get its way; one that lectures about standing up to oppression, except oppression in certain ridings

One that insists it is working in the interests of the average Canadian, but tries to curry favour with the above-average Canadian in private. One that renounces the politics of fear and division, except when the politics of fear and division can be politically advantageous. 

And one that has spent its entire political existence proselytizing about tolerance, inclusivity, sensitivity and acceptance, all the while knowing — and hiding — a past that includes multiple instances of dressing up in blackface. 

'Arabian Nights'

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made one good point while delivering his apology Wednesday, after Time magazine published a 2001 photo of him wearing brownface as a 29-year-old teacher at an Arabian Nights-themed school party. 

"If everyone who is going to be standing for office needs to demonstrate they've been perfect every step of their lives," Trudeau said, "there is going to be a shortage of people running for office."

Putting aside the enormous chasm between being "perfect" and wearing blackface three times, Trudeau makes a valid point about the need for a political machine that makes allowances for human flaws. If we don't allow people to grow and change, we end up with slates of sanitized candidates who planned their political careers from birth and wore suits to middle school, which is, without a doubt, a most hellish version of politics. 

But Trudeau's argument would carry more weight had his war room not spent the week prior furiously digging up reasons why his opponents should be disqualified — reasons that include what they once said, once advocated for, or with whom they previously associated.

None of those claims were close to as bad as a grown man wearing blackface on multiple occasions. Had Trudeau been a regular candidate of any party, including the Liberals, he would've been closing up his campaign office by now. 

Earlier this year, the United States was grappling with a political blackface scandal of its own: Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was accused of wearing blackface in a 1984 yearbook photo.

That was the time, if ever, for Trudeau to own his actions, instead of being cornered into acknowledging them, as he has been now.

Instead, Trudeau carried on as if — to borrow his own words — he had been perfect every step of his life, with the Liberals then launching a co-ordinated attack on the Conservatives, accusing them of being soft on white supremacy.

Knowing what we know now, if you imagine Trudeau wearing black makeup and singing Day O while accusing Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer of refusing to take racism seriously, the attack loses its potency. 

Each Canadian will decide for themselves whether Trudeau's actions, and failure to disclose those actions, warrant forgiveness, writes Robyn Urback. (Cole Burston / Canadian Press)

There is no question that the revelations of the last 24 hours are shocking, and that they could very well shift the direction of the federal election campaign.

But at the same time, for those familiar with the ways the karma gods of politics operate, they are wholly unsurprising, particularly considering the cracks in the Trudeau brand that have given way thus far.

It follows that the politician who preaches most about loving his wife probably loves his mistress more, and the one who rails against gay marriage would never do so in front of his secret male lover. The most sanctimonious of leaders are so often the sinners. 

And Justin Trudeau is a perfect example: a self-appointed moral steward in a turban and dark makeup.

When you run on sanctimony, govern on arrogance and expect perfection, you find yourself in an awful quandary when you fall short of your own standards.

Each Canadian will decide for themselves whether Trudeau's actions — and failure to disclose those actions — warrant forgiveness. But his days as a progressive icon — the one who quipped "Because it's 2015" when asked why he prioritized gender parity in his cabinet, and boasted that "Canada is back" after his election — are over. 

Trudeau truly has done some important, progressive things for Canada: from opening the door to those fleeing violence and persecution, to putting climate at the forefront of our national agenda (however lacklustre his actual policies might be). But from now on, Trudeau will never be able to separate his record from a few photos of him participating in a racist, ignorant, foolish act. 

Maybe that's unfair. Blame the guy who made the rules. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Robyn Urback


Robyn Urback was an opinion columnist with CBC News and a producer with the CBC's Opinion section. She previously worked as a columnist and editorial board member at the National Post. Follow her on Twitter at: