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Will blackface controversy destroy Trudeau?

This political bombshell has turned into a bomb blast. It's an open question whether Trudeau survives the fallout.
)Alexandros Michailidis /

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has experienced one of the most controversial, bizarre and mind-numbing episodes in Canadian political history. It’s damaged his public image and tarnished his reputation.

On Sept. 18, Time magazine released a 2001 photo from a school yearbook that showed Trudeau in brownface. He was a 29-year-old teacher at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, B.C., and it reportedly occurred during an Arabian Nights-themed party.

How this photo remained buried for so long is a mystery. It was reportedly unearthed by Vancouver businessman Michael Adamson in July. According to Time, he wasn’t at the party but was “part of the West Point Grey Academy community” and felt this photo “should be made public.”

Trudeau apologized on his campaign plane to reporters. During the media scrum, he revealed another instance of putting on, in this case, blackface when he sang Day-O (The Banana Boat Song) in high school. CTV’s Evan Solomon and the Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife both circulated this photo on social media within hours.

After claiming (albeit not definitively) that these were the only two missteps, a video of a third instance of Trudeau in blackface was revealed the next day. The Liberal Party confirmed it was him. It’s since been determined it occurred in Quebec during a “costume day” for instructors at a whitewater rafting company.

Trudeau claims he forgot about this third incident. Whether he really did, or conveniently did, is another issue. He also won’t publicly confirm or deny that he hasn’t worn brownface or blackface since 2001, which can be interpreted in a few ways.

This political bombshell has turned into a bomb blast. Trudeau may not survive the carnage he’s created.

For a week, the Liberals released old, controversial videos and social media comments made by several Conservative candidates related to topics like abortion and homophobia. Apologies were forthcoming.

The Liberals went after Tory Leader Andrew Scheer for defending these candidates after they apologized. They also previously attacked him for a 2005 video where he discussed gay marriage in a controversial fashion. With respect to the latter, Scheer has said his views have evolved, like other Canadians.

Trudeau, in turn, is hoping (and no doubt privately praying) Canadians will accept his apology and realization that “now I recognize it was something racist to do.”

No one is suggesting Trudeau is a racist. But what he did was racially insensitive – and profoundly stupid. It shows a complete lack of judgment between right and wrong, and hurts his credibility as a supposedly liberal, progressive, feminist and enlightened individual.

The scion of a late, former prime minister should have really known better.

I’m 49 years old, or about two years older than the PM. I’m more right-wing than he would ever be on his worst day. Nevertheless, there’s not a single moment in my life where I would have ever considered putting on brownface or blackface. I wouldn’t have fathomed for a nanosecond that this long-discredited practice associated with vaudeville would have been regarded as acceptable behaviour, either.

What he said is pure, unadulterated rubbish.

Nevertheless, most polls show the Tories ahead of the Liberals by a small margin. The former’s popularity was steadily increasing before the brownface/blackface controversy broke, so this appears to be the continuation of an existing trend. That’s neither good nor bad for Scheer’s leadership ambitions and/or Trudeau’s re-election bid.

Can Canadians really accept Trudeau’s apology, which would have ended the careers of most Liberal and Tory prime ministers before him?

They would be voting for someone who’s being mocked on the domestic front, and laughed at and ridiculed on the international front. Having the confidence that he can still lead a nation when he buries embarrassing moments in his life and hopes they’ll never be discovered is rather troubling, too.

What will it say about our country if Trudeau is re-elected after this controversy?

That’s something Canadians should seriously think about before Oct. 21.

Troy Media columnist and political commentator Michael Taube was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper.

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