Oftentimes when we talk about political leaders, we imagine that they should be people that we can be proud of as a country and that our children can look up to. In recent memory, Canada’s political leaders have, broadly speaking, followed this trend.
That is, until this past week when we learned about a truly unfortunate incident involving our current Prime Minister. While working as a teacher at a private school in British Columbia, Justin Trudeau went to a costume party in brownface. Two other separate instances of him in blackface then emerged shortly after the original story broke.
The leader of the New Democratic Party, Jagmeet Singh, a person of colour and a turban-wearing Sikh, addressed the situation eloquently in a statement following the revelation, while holding back tears.
He tried to assure all kids — especially those that are made fun of for the way they look — that despite this moral failing, they can’t give up on Canada. He said that they are loved and appreciated for who they are.
To have someone like Singh as a federal political leader at this moment really puts the whole situation into perspective for me, a white person. He’s someone who has dealt with racist attacks and bullying all his life that continue even today, yet he has clearly channeled that negative energy and hate directed at him into something positive.
Now, when young kids and other people of colour across Canada look at political leadership in Ottawa they can see themselves represented through Singh, the first federal party leader to be a visible minority.
Ultimately, it’s his perspective, his position and his emotional response that made me truly understand the impact that this scandal can have on people of colour.
People of various ethnic backgrounds have and continue to support the Liberal party. They feel that they have found a political home with the Liberals, as they are largely tolerant, inclusive and responsive to the issues that people of colour encounter in Canada. This recent revelation however, must certainly call that into question for some.
While Trudeau was quick to apologize for this and another separate incident where he performed at his high school in blackface, he only offered an apology once it became public knowledge. He should have addressed the issue with his party during candidate vetting and came out ahead of the controversy. Instead, his apology seems more reactive than genuine in my opinion. It makes him look like he was sorry that he got caught instead of being sorry for what he did.
Shortly after his apology, an additional story emerged that showed him on video in blackface on a third occasion. When asked for comment, his campaign directed journalists to the original apology. Not exactly “owning up to your mistakes” if you ask me.
Later, when giving a final apology in Saskatchewan, the Prime Minister was asked how many times he dressed up in blackface or brownface. He simply answered that he couldn’t remember. A chilling thought, to me at least.
Regardless of how you look at the apology, it’s clear that the damage has already been done. The infamous picture has circulated far and wide, his character permanently tarnished as a result and rightly so, because nobody is above being held accountable for their actions, not even the Prime Minister.
While certainly people can grow and change over time, as I am sure the Prime Minister has since these incidents, they seem to have highlighted a dark side of public life in Canada that we often avoid: racism.
When the topic of race has been brought up between myself and family, friends or co-workers, the conversation often will quickly shift to the United States. We as white Canadians are, for the most part, blissfully unaware of Canada’s past and present racial issues. We prefer to lay blame on our neighbours to the south, without recognizing the huge racial blots in our history and our present.
That is why I think Jagmeet’s response to this situation is invaluable and why it personally impacted me, because it’s one of the few times in Canadian politics that I can think of where a marginalized, racialized perspective has been broadcast into the mainstream. Even though his comments were brief, he managed to open my eyes considerably to the issue of blackface, racial animosity and systemic racism that is still alive and well in this country — and he did so just by offering his personal perspective.
I’m curious to see the electoral implications of this scandal, if there are any. Perhaps if the Liberals are re-elected this will prompt a change in tone or approach to issues of race, or even their governing priorities upon retaking office. Maybe the rising tide of racism and xenophobia will be adequately addressed, or the remaining boiled water advisories on the reserves will be resolved. Only time will tell.
In the meantime however, some similar controversies have popped up during this current federal election, where a Liberal candidate was forced out for anti-semitic comments he had made some time ago.
Additionally, while the Conservative Leader, Andrew Scheer, has attempted to politically capitalize on this situation, his past comments regarding same-sex marriage and LGBTQ2S+ rights don’t exactly leave him with a leg to stand on. In fact, his lack of apology seems to indict him far more than the Liberal Leader, but I digress.
While the Liberal party swiftly and rightfully withdrew their candidate for his anti-semitic statements, despite an apology from the candidate, when comparing these situations I’m left asking myself two questions, where is the justice and who can Canadians look up to?