Justin Trudeau tries to contain scandal surrounding brownface and blackface images

Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau makes a statement Sept. 18, 2019, on his campaign plane about a 2001 photo of himself in dark makeup.
(Sean Kilpatrick / Canadian Press)

Canadian leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign has been hit by the publication of a yearbook photo showing him in brownface makeup at a 2001 costume party. The prime minister has said “it was a dumb thing to do.”

With the election a month away, he apologized and begged Canadians to forgive him.

Time magazine on Wednesday published the photo taken at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” costume party, saying it was from the yearbook at West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. It shows Trudeau, then 29, in a turban and robe with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.

Trudeau, who launched his reelection campaign a week ago, said he should have known better.


“I’m pissed off at myself. I’m disappointed in myself,” he told reporters on his campaign plane.

Trudeau is the latest in a string of politicians to get in trouble over racially offensive photos and actions from their younger days.

Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced intense pressure to resign after a racist picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page. He denied being in the picture but admitted wearing blackface as a young man while portraying Michael Jackson at a dance party in the 1980s. Since then, Virginia Atty. Gen. Mark Herring has acknowledged wearing blackface in college, and Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey has apologized for donning blackface during a college skit more than 50 years ago. None of them stepped down.

The photo of Trudeau was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an “Arabian Nights” theme that year, Trudeau said, adding that he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.”

The prime minister said it was not the first time he’d darkened his face. He said he once did it while performing Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” during a talent show.

“I should have known better then, but I didn’t, and I am deeply sorry for it,” Trudeau said. “I’m going to ask Canadians to forgive me for what I did. I shouldn’t have done that. I take responsibility for it. It was a dumb thing to do.”

Global News also reported on a third instance, broadcasting a brief video of Trudeau in blackface while raising his hands in the air and sticking out his tongue. A spokeswoman for Trudeau’s Liberal Party said the footage was from the early 1990s. The Canadian TV network said it was unclear where the tape was made.

On Thursday, Trudeau said he is wary of saying definitively how many times he has worn brown or blackface, but added: “I have to recognize that I was blind to the pain that I caused at those times.”

The furor could spell more trouble for Trudeau, who polls say is facing a serious challenge Oct. 21 from Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

“What Canadians saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country,” Scheer said.

Trudeau champions diversity, multiculturalism and immigration and has been admired by liberals around the world for his policies in the Trump era, with Canada accepting more refugees than the U.S. His government has also strongly advocated free trade and has legalized cannabis.

But the 47-year-old son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was already vulnerable after one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when Trudeau’s former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the prosecution of a company in Quebec. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but the scandal rocked the government and led to resignations and a drop in his ratings this year.

His quick apology did not stem the criticism from political opponents.

“I am deeply troubled by what this means to Canada. Young kids are not just going to see just one or two but multiple images of the prime minister mocking their lived reality,” said leftist New Democratic leader Jagmeet Singh, who is a Sikh. “This is so hurtful to so many Canadians.”

Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said he was “gobsmacked” by the development.

“We’ll just have to see how the party reacts,” he said. “I’m very curious to know how Liberal members of Parliament that are black will react.”

He added: “The case has never been conclusively made that Justin is a person of substance. I mean, he may well be. But that impression is just not out there.”

Mitzie Hunter, a Liberal running to lead the party in Ontario provincial politics, tweeted that what Trudeau did was wrong but noted he apologized.

“I know it is not representative of the man he is. This is a teachable moment for all of us. I accept his apology and I hope Canadians do too,” Hunter tweeted.

Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, said he doesn’t believe the photo will cause people to vote differently. Wiseman said race and blackface play a much bigger role in U.S. politics than in Canada.

“This is not the type of scandal that will drive voters to the Conservatives,” he said.