Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday apologized for wearing “brownface” makeup at a party 18 years ago, as he scrambled to get on top of a fresh blow to a re-election campaign dogged by controversy.
Time magazine published the photograph one week into a federal election campaign with Trudeau’s Liberal Party in a tight contest against the Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer.
Trudeau, 47, whose party won a landslide victory in 2015, has already been under attack for an ethics lapse and other controversies.
The black-and-white photograph shows Trudeau, then 29, wearing a turban and robes with his face, neck and hands darkened at the gala in 2001.
The picture appears in the 2000-2001 yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau taught at the time, the US-based magazine said.
Trudeau confirmed that it was him in the photograph “at the school’s annual dinner, which had a costume theme of ‘Arabian Nights.’”
“I have worked all my life to try to create opportunities for people, fight against racism and intolerance,” Trudeau told a televised news conference on his campaign aircraft. “I can say I made a mistake when I was younger and I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had known better then, but I didn’t and I’m deeply sorry for it.”
“Now I recognize it was something racist to do,” he said. “[For] communities and people who live with intersectionalities and face discrimination, it is a significant thing that is very hurtful.”
Trudeau, once the youthful golden boy of Canadian politics, also admitted to wearing dark makeup singing Harry Belafonte’s 1950s hit Banana Boat Song (Day O) at a separate high school talent contest.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, reacted by calling the behavior “troubling” and “insulting.”
“Anytime we hear examples of brown face or black face, it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live and what their lived experiences are,” Singh said. “What does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the color of their skin, face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their life? Racism is real.”
Scheer, who has been Trudeau’s most ardent critic, pounding him on ethics lapses, saying he was “shocked and disappointed” over Trudeau’s “lack of judgement and integrity” in this matter, and said Trudeau was “not fit to govern this country.”
Trudeau is a fervent advocate of the multiculturalism integral to Canadian identity, with at least six members of his Cabinet having Asian or African heritage.
Accusations of political meddling in a bribery case against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin saw Trudeau’s support plunge at the beginning of this year.
The scandal broke when two members of his Cabinet accused him and his aides of meddling in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin to save jobs.
Both the ministers were women and one was Canada’s first indigenous attorney general. They were expelled from the party.
The episode cost Trudeau support among women, indigenous people and young people — constituencies that helped propel him to victory in 2015.
Trudeau’s stint as a teacher belongs to a colorful past that also includes working as a snowboard instructor, a bartender and a bouncer.
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