Politics

Trudeau apologizes again, says he can't remember exact number of blackface incidents

In his first formal press conference since the blackface scandal erupted, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today his privileged upbringing blinded him to the profound harm caused by his past racist acts.

Mixed reactions coming from Liberal ranks after bombshell racism accusations fly in Week 2 of campaign

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau made a statement from his campaign plane on Wednesday about a photo that emerged showing him wearing brownface at an event in 2001. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

In his first formal press conference since the blackface scandal erupted, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said today his privileged upbringing blinded him to the profound harm caused by his past racist acts.

At a campaign event in Winnipeg Thursday, Trudeau apologized directly to racialized Canadians after more bombshell images surfaced of him in blackface.

Trudeau 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.

"I am wary of being definitive about this. The recent pictures I had not remembered," he 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."

On Wednesday evening, Trudeau recounted just two incidents of blackface. A third image of him in blackface surfaced in video form Thursday.

Trudeau said he never spoke about the incidents before now because he was "embarrassed," adding that his past actions do not define the politician he has become since.

"What I did ... hurt people who shouldn't have to face intolerance and discrimination because of their identity. This is something that I deeply, deeply regret," he said.

"Darkening your face, regardless of the context of the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface. I should have understood that then, and I never should have done it."

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

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

Trudeau, known globally for his "diversity is our strength" mantra, is 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.

Trudeau spent the first part of today reaching out to candidates, party staff and community leaders to try to explain his actions. The Liberal campaign cancelled a morning event before scheduling an afternoon media event in Winnipeg.

'Terrible mistake'

He asked Canadians to forgive him for what he acknowledged was a "terrible mistake."

"I have dedicated my leadership and my service to Canada to try and counter intolerance and racism everywhere I can, but this has been ... a moment I've had to reflect on the fact that wanting to do good and wanting to do better simply isn't good enough," he said.

He said he spoke with his own children about the incidents, a conversation the campaign said was held via Facetime, and he became emotional when he spoke of parents having "uncomfortable and hurtful" conversations with their own kids today because of his actions.

Asked if he's considering stepping aside to let someone else lead the party through the election, Trudeau did not answer directly, but said he would "continue to do the work that is necessary to keep us moving forward in the right way."

"I regret deeply parents who had to have difficult conversations with their kids that were uncomfortable and hurtful because of my actions," an emotional Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said while answering reporters' questions in Winnipeg Thursday. 0:32

"Canadians have an important choice to make on October 21st and I trust Canadians to make that right choice," he said.

"I certainly hope that they will continue to support us in the work that we're doing, but they might not. And I know that is something that all Canadians get to decide and they get to bring in all sorts of different factors, because every Canadian has a different way of looking at what matters to them."

The controversy is drawing mixed reactions from the Liberal ranks.

Greg Fergus, a black Liberal MP seeking re-election in Hull-Aylmer, Que., said Trudeau should be judged on his "great record" promoting equality and diversity, not on incidents nearly 20 years in the past.

"I think those are really the measure of the man and that's the reason why I have confidence in his continuing leadership," he said.

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

Fergus said the prime minister likely did not divulge his past behaviour earlier because he was embarrassed and ashamed. He said Trudeau called him personally before the story emerged late Wednesday.

Fergus said many of the black Canadians he has spoken with since the scandal broke are confused and offended.

'People are feeling hurt'

"It's going to be rough. People are feeling hurt," he said.

The 2001 incident, which saw a 29-year-old Trudeau wear blackface as part of an Aladdin costume for a school fundraising event called Arabian Nights, was brought to light by an article in Time Magazine. A photo and separate video of other incidents were subsequently released showing Trudeau in racist makeup.

Omar Alghabra, who is seeking re-election as a Liberal MP for Mississauga Centre, also received a call from Trudeau before the story broke. He said the prime minister wanted to give him heads up, to apologize and to extend a commitment to continue his work.

Despite the warning, he said he was taken aback by the images.

"My heart sank," he said. "It's not something I expected to see Justin Trudeau doing. But I can't really explain how or why it happened."

Alghabra said he did not know Trudeau 20 years ago, but the man he knows now fights against hate, intolerance and prejudice.

"He's been a champion to combat against the type of pain this picture is causing," he said.

"The person I know of Justin Trudeau for the last seven or eight years is a champion against intolerance and racism. Not just lip service, but with real deeds and real action. That is the Justin Trudeau I know. I can't explain those pictures."

Natural Resources Minister Amarjeet Sohi issued a strong statement condemning the images.

"I was very disheartened and disappointed to see these images. These indefensible images bring back many painful memories of racism that I and other racialized Canadians have experienced throughout their lives," he said.

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan said today that what Trudeau did "was wrong then, and it's wrong now," but his policies show a commitment to promoting diversity.

"Absolutely, those pictures are hurtful. I know how much he regrets it," Sajjan said in an interview Thursday with CBC Radio's The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn in Vancouver.

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

Katie Omstead, the Liberal candidate for Chatham-Kent-Leamington, issued a statement Thursday saying that she is "disappointed" by the images.

"I simply don't care how old these images are. Being a teacher, my heart goes out to students everywhere who have been affected by racism, homophobia and bullying," she said.

"We've seen him apologize sincerely, and accept full responsibility. I know, as does he, how serious this is. We need to continue to have conversations about discrimination, and what we can do to teach our children, and those of us who lead, to respect the diversity of all Canadians. We all need to be better."

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)

Part of the Liberal campaign strategy has been to call out Conservative candidates for past indiscretions. Some opponents are calling Trudeau a hypocrite today.

Liberal commentator Susan Smith said Trudeau must keep apologizing and emphasizing the work he has done on diversity as an MP and as prime minister, such as appointing a diverse cabinet, welcoming Syrian refugees and promoting Indigenous reconciliation and gender equality.

"For voters, the intent, the track record as PM and the future vision will likely matter more than the distant past," Smith said.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau apologizes while answering reporters' questions in Winnipeg about the emergence of images of him in blackface in Thursday. 21:50

"When the dust settles, I think the real question for Canadians is, 'Do you think Justin Trudeau is a racist?' And if people are being honest with themselves, the answer is, 'No.'"

While it may be a factor for some Canadians on voting day, Smith said she doubts it will be a key ballot issue.

Former Liberal MP Marlene Jennings defended Trudeau on Twitter, praising him for owning up to his mistakes "openly, honestly" and making real efforts to do better.

Liberal MP Nick Whalen tweeted that he spoke about the issue with his children, saying they immediately understood that "dressing up as cultures" is wrong, disrespectful and oppressive.

With files from the CBC's David Cochrane

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