As It Happens

Trudeau's racist costumes don't reflect the man he is today, says Liberal candidate Omar Alghabra

The Justin Trudeau who dressed up in blackface and brownface is not the same Justin Trudeau we know today, says incumbent Liberal MP Omar Alghabra.

'His evolution started way before these images have come out,' says incumbent Mississauga Centre

Liberal MP Omar Alghabra denounces Justin Trudeau's blackface and brownface photos, but says the Liberal leader has grown and changed. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)
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The Justin Trudeau who dressed up in blackface and brownface is not the same Justin Trudeau we know today, says Liberal candidate Omar Alghabra.

The Liberal leader apologized on Thursday after three images surfaced showing him in racist costumes, telling reporters his privileged upbringing blinded him to the harm his behaviour caused. 

Time magazine first broke the news Wednesday night that Trudeau wore brownface at an Arabian Nights-themed party in 2001. Trudeau later admitted to wearing blackface at a high school talent show, and Global News reported another instance of blackface in the '90s. 

Alghabra, the incumbent MP for Mississauga Centre, says he can't defend what Trudeau did in his past, but the man he knows today is a champion for human rights. Here is part of his conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off. 

What did Justin Trudeau say to you [Wednesday] night as this story was rolling out?

He called me while I was canvassing and told me he wanted to prepare me for a story that's coming out. He explained to me what the story is, and he offered his sincere and deep apology, and he admitted that this was unacceptable and that it's hurtful for many people.

He told me that he is going to go out publicly and accept it and tackle it head-on and offer an unreserved apology, and told me that he's going to have to do a lot of work to address this issue. 

At what point did you actually see the image or images from this Arabian Nights gala?

It was about an hour after I spoke with the prime minister.

How did you feel when you saw those pictures?

I have to admit that my heart sank. You know, it was a mix of emotions, so it's hard to just use one adjective. I was disappointed. I was hurt. I was anxious. I was also keen on hearing the prime minister address this issue.

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)

I know you have been subject to a lot of racism, even as a member of Parliament. I've watched that. And you were once the president of the Canadian Arab Federation, an organization that fights racism. I mean, when you see the prime minister — someone you know, someone you've trusted, that you put your faith in — who is making a game out of the awful reality of people who have faced this kind of racism and discrimination, that's got to hurt.

As I said, it's painful. And if you're asking me, Carol, to rationalize what Mr. Trudeau has done 20 years ago, I am not able to do so.

But if you're asking me if I have faith in Justin Trudeau over the last few years and what has he has done for people? Not just like me. I'm a man of privilege who has been elected, and I sit at the table of power. There are many, many millions of Canadians who are working day in and day out either because they are on the receiving end of racism or because they are championing and combating racism and hate, [who] have been supportive of Mr. Trudeau's policy and words over the last few years.

And, frankly, not just here in Canada, but 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.

And I've seen him also in private — not just behind microphones, not just in front of cameras. I've seen him in private meetings, in private rooms. I've seen him actually correct me on my language and the errors that I may make in promoting inaccurate stereotypes.

I'm not able to rationalize what happened 20 years ago.

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

But, you know, it's not the only incident. Now there are two others when he was younger, but again doing blackface, dressing up, using ethnicity as a costume. And then today, just now in a press conference this afternoon, he says that there may have been other incidents, but he doesn't remember. What does that say to you?

I can't explain that Justin Trudeau. I can't.

I've been working with Justin Trudeau since 2012 when he ran for leadership. Not words that he has repeated. I'm talking about action against Islamophobia, against anti-Semitism, against anti-LGBT community, against the [anti-]Indigenous communities, against anti-black racism.

He has spoken out and he's implemented policies and he has been a champion. So I cannot explain that Justin Trudeau and what he did 20 years ago because I'm disappointed in that Justin Trudeau.

Trudeau pictured at Le collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in the school talent show singing Day O and wearing blackface. (CBC)

He was 29 years old. He was a teacher. He was a leader. He came from a family of privilege. He had traveled the world with the prime minister knowing what people go through, seeing what discrimination was. He, not only as just a person of privilege, but as a really exceptional person of privilege, should have known better at 29, don't you think?

I think so, and I think he acknowledges that.

Last year, I was attacked publicly by a Conservative senator and a Conservative member of Parliament for my background and my faith. And they both publicly apologized and personally apologized to me, and I accepted their apology because they were sincere.

For me, when a person apologizes, it's the start of an evolution. But what I can say about Mr. Trudeau, his evolution started way before these images have come out, have surfaced.

But here's the problem, though, is that during this campaign, your party, the Liberals, have rolled out a steady stream of exposés of the Scheer Conservatives ... showing that they had made racist, homophobic, Islamophobic remarks and calling for their removal, saying that they shouldn't be running. Mr. Scheer says as long as they've all apologized for being racist, homophobic or Islamophobic, it's OK. You're saying it's OK for Mr. Trudeau. He can apologize and move on.

That's not what I'm saying. I am saying Mr. Trudeau has proven through his words and his actions, not only as a prime minister, but as a leader of the Liberal Party and as a member of Parliament, through his deeds, through his words, through his actions, what he stands for. We know. 

Mr. Scheer has made troubling and offensive remarks about what he thinks of LGBT community members and their right to access equal marriage. But we have not seen his evolution. We have not seen him demonstrate that he has learned from his past.

So I think that is highly important. What Mr. Trudeau has done with his responsibility as a member of Parliament, as a leader of the Liberal Party and as a prime minister, has helped and offered words of comfort and policies of comfort to millions of Canadians who look up to their leaders to stand in their corner when they are being marginalized, to stand in their corner when they are being discriminated against.

He has been in their corner for years. This didn't start just because the images have shown up.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kevin Robertson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.