On September the 18th, Canada’s Justin Trudeau broke our newsfeeds when Time magazine discovered that the Liberal Prime Minister had worn ‘blackface’ back in 2001 at an ‘Arabian Nights’-themed party. Since then, further controversial images have appeared of two occasions in his early twenties doing the same. Now widely seen as a demeaning and offensive caricature of black people which depicts racial stereotypes, the images of ‘blackface’ were rightly condemned by mainstream media and leading figures in the political sphere, followed swiftly by a sincere apology from the Canadian Prime Minister. Yet with an already-tight election looming next month, is this the end of Justin Trudeau’s premiership, and how should we treat him going forward?
This scandal particularly came as a shock to us given Trudeau’s reputation as a well-known active liberal in North America: installing the first gender-balanced cabinet; welcoming one million immigrants in the past three years; standing up for the rights of murdered indigenous people. A self-proclaimed feminist - all reflected a Prime Minister that has stood up for racial minorities and advocated diligently for multiculturalism. In this light, the ‘blackface’ scandal seems a contradiction of Trudeau’s liberal values and makes us question his integrity: is he now a hypocrite for betraying the anti-racist values he himself advocates for? It makes sense to call him one given this contradiction, yet it is important to remember that although inexcusable, the ‘blackface’ scandal was years ago, and his liberal record today means that is it harder to hurl accusations of racism.
Nevertheless, Trudeau’s political adversaries have been relentless on capitalizing on the ‘blackface’ scandal and using it as fuel in the upcoming election. Leader of the Opposition, Conservative: Andrew Scheer commented that the scandal shows Trudeau is “unfit to govern”. Yet, Scheer himself has been criticized for his past homophobic comments and for sharing platforms with the alt-right “Yellow-vest” movement in Canada. Could he be accused of hypocrisy too? Clearly, the attention is on Trudeau’s actions, but it is worth noting that the hypocrisy is not only his to bear. In fact, earlier this year it emerged that Governor Ralph Northam of North Carolina had dressed in 'blackface' in his youth, and some countries still practice forms of 'blackface', such as the Dutch annually celebrating St. Nicolas Eve, in which black make-up is worn. Clearly, 'blackface' is a past phenomenon, rooted oftentimes in traditional practices, but which has become deeply controversial in the 21st century. The revelation of Trudeau’s part in wearing it has left a lasting sting on Canada’s election cycle this year, but is fair to treat him as a “disgrace” to Canada? Probably not.
Even with this present scandal, Trudeau’s Liberal Party has already stumbled leading up to October’s campaign trail: earlier this year Trudeau broke ethics laws when he pressured his Attorney General to follow an out-of-court deal with the SNC-Lavalin construction firm, and the proposed Trans Mountain Pipeline his government has flag shipped has been opposed by indigenous groups and environmentalists. Yet Trudeau has stayed afloat in the polls despite an obvious drop in popularity, frequently coming neck-and-neck in polls with the Conservatives, which still translates into the Liberals holding the most seats in Parliament, and just short of a majority. As the Washington Post reports, elections are won or lost in the “ethnically diverse middle-class suburbs outside Toronto and Vancouver”, where just a minor swing could tip the election, so Trudeau’s chances are still precarious to say the least. Yet he is still the favourite among younger voters, compared to the Conservative’s “stagnant” support, where Scheer is still struggling to convince swing voters that his party is appealing enough.
Trudeau’s future ultimately rests on how much support he ends up conceding to the smaller progressive parties by election day on October 21st, notably the New Democratic Party, the Greens and Bloc Quebocois. Yet under the more radical leadership of Jagmeet Singh, the New Democrat Party has moved to the left, and is widely expected to lose seats to the Liberals. Trudeau’s scandal is therefore a chance to grab back some of those seats for Singh, but not an opportunity to do serious damage. An opinion poll on the 25th September from ‘Nanos Research” shows a 1.9% lead for the Liberals: already hinting at a recovery.
The 'blackface' Scandal may have caused a political tsunami for Trudeau, but it looks for now as if Trudeau will manage to keep his head above the water heading into October. That’s if, of course, another scandal doesn’t arise.