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Canadian PM Justin Trudeau apologises after brownface photo surfaces

OTTAWA, Ontario — The reelection campaign of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was thrown into turmoil Wednesday (Sept 18) when a photograph surfaced of him wearing brownface makeup at a 2001 private school party.

The re-election campaign of Mr Trudeau was thrown into turmoil Sept 18 when Time magazine published a 2001 photograph of him wearing brownface makeup at a private school party.

The re-election campaign of Mr Trudeau was thrown into turmoil Sept 18 when Time magazine published a 2001 photograph of him wearing brownface makeup at a private school party.

OTTAWA, Ontario — The reelection campaign of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was thrown into turmoil Wednesday (Sept 18) when a photograph surfaced of him wearing brownface makeup at a 2001 private school party.

The photograph had been taken when Mr Trudeau, then a 29-year-old teacher, attended an “Arabian Nights” themed costume gala at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, according to Time magazine, which published the image.

Speaking with reporters on board his campaign plane, Mr Trudeau, who has long championed the rights of racial minorities in Canada, confirmed that the photo showed him at a costume party dressed as a character from Aladdin with his arms wrapped around a women he described as "a close friend".

“This is something I shouldn’t have done many years ago,” Mr Trudeau said. “I take responsibility for my decision to do that. I didn’t think it was racist at the time. I now realise it was racist.”

He added: “I’m going to be asking Canadians to forgive me.”

Mr Trudeau said that he also wore blackface in high school while performing “Day-O,” the Jamaican folk song.

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The newly surfaced photograph appeared in the academy’s 2000-01 yearbook, The View, Time said, adding that it had obtained a copy of the yearbook from a Vancouver businessman. The magazine reported that the businessman, Mr Michael Adamson, first saw the photograph in July and felt that it should be made public.

The news immediately injected new uncertainty into the political prospects of Trudeau, the Liberal Party leader who began his reelection campaign a week ago, ahead of the country’s Oct 21 vote. He has sought to cast himself as a champion of Canada’s racial and ethnic minorities and promoted immigration during his nearly four years as prime minister.

Many Canadians are of South Asian and Middle Eastern descent and Mr Trudeau has four Sikhs in his Cabinet. Those communities have been an important source of support for the Liberals and Mr Trudeau, particularly in suburban areas around Toronto, which are seen as key electoral battlegrounds in the election.

But on a disastrous state trip to India earlier in the year, Mr Trudeau attracted ridicule for wearing flashy silk and gold-embroidered outfits and pointed, red silk shoes. Though intended as a gesture of respect for Indian culture, it was widely seen in Canada as a cringe-inducing game of dress-up.

On Wednesday night, while repeatedly apologising for the brownface makeup and the hurt it can cause people who have faced discrimination, Mr Trudeau said that he had "always been more been more enthusiastic about costumes than sometimes is appropriate".

On Wednesday, Mr Jagmeet Singh, the leader of the New Democratic Party, who is a Sikh, said Mr Trudeau’s costume was "insulting" and suggested that the prime minister’s behaviour shows that he may not be the same person in private as he portrays himself in public.

Last year, Mr Trudeau was accused of groping a reporter in 2000 while he was still a private citizen. Trudeau rejected the allegation, and it was largely forgotten.

“Who is the real Mr Trudeau?” Mr Singh asked reporters. “Is it the one behind closed doors, the one when the cameras are turned off that no one sees? Is that the real Mr Trudeau? Because more and more, it seems like it is.”

Mr Mustafa Farooq, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, said that he found the photograph "deeply saddening" and called for the prime minister to apologise.

“The wearing of blackface/brownface is reprehensible, and harkens back to a history of racism and an Orientalist mythology, which is unacceptable,” Mr Farooq said in a statement.

Mr Trudeau said that he had begun calling supporters who belong to racial minority groups and members of his caucus and Cabinet to apologise personally.

Political analysts noted that for Trudeau, a prime minister of the Instagram age, who had meticulously constructed a global image as a progressive on issues such as gender equality, indigenous and minority rights, the image of him in brownface could be politically damaging.

“It could repel some progressive voters who are against any kind of cultural appropriation and especially blackface,” said Mr Jean-François Daoust, an expert in public opinion at McGill University. “It can undermine the aura he has tried to create.”

But Mr Daoust added that it was important not to overstate the effects of an event that happened 18 years ago. He noted that the Conservative leader, Mr Andrew Scheer, was also being taken to task for past behaviour, including comments he made in 2005 that same-sex couples should not be equally entitled to wed because marriage was meant for “natural procreation".

Mr Barry Kay, a political-science professor at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, said the revelation was embarrassing and potentially damaging for Trudeau, but cautioned that it was too early to determine the effect it would have on the campaign. He said the image could reinforce existing impressions of Trudeau as inauthentic.

“I am not sure the extent that it will resonate in public opinion in a campaign where everyone has been turning on everyone,” Mr Kay said.

The publication of the photo comes amid an acrimonious debate about multiculturalism in Quebec, an electorally vital province, which recently passed a law banning public-sector teachers, judges and police officers from wearing religious symbols at work.

Mr Trudeau, whose pro-immigration stance has been a cornerstone of his premiership, has condemned the law, which he has characterised as antithetical to Canadian values. He also suggested that the federal government may join in legal challenges to it.

A member of parliament for Papineau, a multicultural part of Montreal, Mr Trudeau has been popular with immigrants who have lauded his pro-immigrant stance, including swiftly admitting 25,000 Syrian refugees after taking office.

The issue of cultural appropriation reverberated in Canada in July 2018 when a show “Slav", by the acclaimed Quebec theater director Robert Lepage, premiered at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The show, which featured white actors playing slaves, immediately spawned a backlash and criticism that white artists had recklessly appropriated black culture. Only two of seven cast members were black. The show was cancelled after two performances. THE NEW YORK TIMES

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Justin Trudeau Canada elections brownface racism

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