Cross Country Checkup

'It showed some learning': Expert says Trudeau's blackface apology seems genuine, but voters are divided

Whether the Liberal leader can shift the campaign away from questions about his use of blackface may depend on how Canadians judge Trudeau’s multiple apologies about the matter.

Shifting the campaign from questions about blackface could depend how the public judges Trudeau's apologies

Trudeau apologized Wednesday after a photo of him wearing blackface makeup was published by Time magazine. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

When Justin Trudeau announced his first cabinet, Lucas Medina drove to Ottawa to stand in the cold and witness, because he was so enthused about the new prime minister's commitment to diversity.

His enthusiasm turned to anger last week when past photos and video resurfaced of Trudeau appearing in racist makeup.

"It's shocking that someone of his generation would do that," said Medina, referring to a 2001 photo of Trudeau wearing dark makeup at an "Arabian Nights" themed party while he was a private school teacher.

"I don't believe that a 29-year-old in 2001 was unaware that it was inappropriate to wear blackface." 

Medina, who is multi-racial with Afro-Latino heritage, has watched Trudeau's multiple apologies closely.

Watch: Trudeau's apology for wearing brownface and blackface

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

While he notes Trudeau's messaging has shifted to include an acknowledgement of his own privilege, he's still deeply upset.

"He doesn't think he did anything wrong. He thinks that he did something that can be seen as racist ... but he's not racist," said Medina, questioning Trudeau's failure to reveal the photos earlier.

Whether the Liberal Leader can shift the campaign away from questions about his use of blackface may depend on how Canadians judge Trudeau's multiple apologies about the matter.

Assessing Trudeau's apology

UBC political science professor Max Cameron says Canadians are willing to forgive when politicians make an error or gaffe, if an apology is genuine.

"What we're looking for in apologies is immediate, sincere acknowledgement of a wrong and steps forward to correct what's been wrong in the past," said Cameron, who teaches a program that trains aspiring politicians on how to serve with integrity.

Cameron, who calls it "stunning" that Trudeau engaged in such behaviour, says Trudeau's brand as a champion for marginalized members of society has taken a beating.

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)

Still, he believes Trudeau's initial apology hit the right notes.

"It was immediate. It appeared to be genuine, quite emotional. He actually said he was 'pissed off' with himself, so he distanced himself from his past. He said, at the time, [he] didn't think it was racist; clearly it is. So, it showed some learning."

However, questions about the blackface photos continue to dog the prime minister, says Cameron, because he hasn't offered a plan to address systemic racism or his own white privilege.

"I didn't hear any clear statement about how things would be different. Whether anything comes out of this that he would want to put to Canadians to advance a conversation on race."

Cameron emphasizes his analysis is shaped by being a white male who hasn't experienced racism, and it's crucial to hear how minority communities respond.

Judging Trudeau on his record

Some organizations have thanked Trudeau for apologizing, such as the National Council of Canadian Muslims, which initially called the prime minister's use of brownface "reprehensible."

Dan Philip, who heads an advocacy group for Quebec's black community, is going a step further, suggesting it wasn't necessary for Trudeau to apologize.

"This was not done with malice. It was done as a show, perhaps unwittingly," said Philip, president of the Black Coalition of Quebec. 

"I am more interested in the actions of a person, than a person who acted as Harry Belafonte."

Dan Philip questions other politicians criticizing Trudeau over the blackface photos: 'I find it hypocritical.' (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

Philip believes Trudeau is a committed advocate for tolerance and multiculturalism, pointing to the Liberal government's increased gender diversity in cabinet and efforts toward reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

That record is enough to convince Philip to vote Liberal in the next election, and he dismisses criticisms from other party leaders as political posturing.

"Those who criticize him have done nothing to advance the promotion or interests of the black community, so, I find it hypocritical and it is time that this thing stop."

'Not the principled party I thought it was'

Lucas Medina, however, remains unconvinced about the Liberal anti-racism record.

"The unanimous support from his party really tells a lot about what their beliefs are behind-the-scenes. This is not the principled party that I thought it was," Medina said.

Medina says he's troubled by "the rise of white supremacy in Canada over the last few years," saying that he chose to move to Windsor after being told in the streets of Toronto, on multiple occasions, to go back to his own country. 

Medina worries about the number of Canadians willing to brush off Trudeau's use of blackface.

"The Canadian reaction has been really shocking too," said Medina. "It's going to be an interesting learning experience for Canadians who don't see it as a big deal to see how the international press is talking about this."

After "drinking the Team Trudeau Kool-Aid" in 2015, Medina won't be voting Liberal this time around.

"I don't think people will want to work with him or be photographed with him," said Medina. 

"He's just toxic now."

About the Author

Duncan McCue

CBC host and reporter

Duncan McCue is host of CBC Radio One's Cross Country Checkup and a correspondent for CBC's The National. He reported from Vancouver for over 15 years, and is now based in Toronto. During a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 2011, he created a guide for journalists called Reporting in Indigenous Communities. Duncan is Anishinaabe, a member of the Chippewas of Georgina Island First Nation.

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