Canada has had these incidents before, and the aftermath has tended to follow a pattern.
Justin Trudeau’s political career, already fragile, suddenly hangs in the balance of an explosive controversy over a two-decade-old photo of himself that he acknowledged as racist.
Canada has had these incidents before — just never involving someone so famous, on such a consequential stage. And the aftermath has tended to follow a pattern.
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If history repeats itself, the bombshell news of Trudeau attending a party 20 years ago in brown makeup, reported by Time magazine Wednesday evening, will split the country into bitter disagreement over the extent to which this rates as a Canadian controversy.
The outcome of that argument will help decide whether Trudeau, who had already been hobbled by a corruption scandal and waning support from some progressives, survives an already-close race to win a second term Oct. 21.
Past incidents of this sort have seen some Canadians attempt to argue that brownface or blackface is an American import — and that outrage over it counts as over-the-top political correctness in a land without the same history of Jim Crow laws and Al Jolson minstrel shows.
Especially in French-speaking Quebec, some commentators have rolled their eyes, or even lashed back angrily, at criticism of blackface incidents in their province. That’s despite the fact that Quebec has been home to a number of these debates over the past decade. The incidents included an impersonation of Jamaican-Canadian hockey star P.K. Subban; college students pretending to be Jamaican athletes; and someone else portraying himself as a Senegalese-born comedian.
“News flash: Cultural codes, and hence cultural taboos, sometimes differ from people to people and society to society,” one prominent Quebec-based pundit wrote amid one such debate in 2015.
“Blackface, used in the detestable minstrelsies that used to portray stereotypical and generic versions of blacks as dimwitted, are not as well known in French Quebec as they are in English-speaking North America. The term blackface doesn’t even have a French equivalent,” he wrote.
Don’t count on Trudeau getting off so lightly.
For starters, he grew up speaking English, well versed in America’s taboos, and this particular incident happened when he was nearly 30 years old and living in British Columbia.
Also, a vast swath of Canadians finds these incidents every bit as disgraceful as their American neighbors.
They argue that historical differences are no excuse because blackface holds an equally objectionable — if lesser-known — place in Canada’s story.
“Thus it might be said that the blackface is as Canadian as [the anthem] O Canada,” says a McGill University website that tackles the topic.
The Canadian prime minister’s reelection campaign was jolted by the report of Trudeau wearing what it described as “brownface makeup” as part of a costume at an Arabian Nights-themed party at a British Columbia school where he taught at the time.
Trudeau defended himself Wednesday night by saying he should have known better, but didn’t, and was sorry. He said he’d dressed up in an Aladdin costume two decades ago for a party, when he was a teacher, and had previously dressed in a similar way when he was in high school at a talent show.
“I’m disappointed and pissed off at myself,” Trudeau said, adding his agreement that the act of painting himself brown was racist.
Before Trudeau spoke, he was excoriated by one of his political opponents who usually describes him as a friend.
“So shocked,” Green Party leader Elizabeth May said, describing her initial reaction to the news.
“It’s shameful. When I look at it — and it’s rare for me — I’m almost speechless,” she said. ”I don’t know how he recovers.”
Lauren Gardner contributed to this story from British Columbia.