The blackface scandal Justin Trudeau is embroiled in threatens to tear apart his thin veneer of progressivism, argues John Clarke
While Justin Trudeau’s progressive credentials have not gone unchallenged, his image makers have spared no effort to promote them throughout Canada and on the international stage. For his part, Trudeau has never lost an opportunity to present himself as a veritable fountain of enlightenment. Central to this has been his promotion of the values of multiculturalism and his personal commitment to a Canada where ‘we respect and unite behind our differences.’
This sweet dream of a tolerant and inclusive society, complete with a Prime Minister who personifies and cherishes these values, has taken a severe beating in the form of the so-called ‘blackface scandal’ that has emerged just as Trudeau campaigns in a federal election. The Liberal leader was once a drama teacher and there can be no denying that he has put those skills to good use in the political realm. Whether he is jogging with no shirt on for the cameras or making a tearful apology for past wrongdoing by the Canadian state, Trudeau never lacks a flair for the dramatic. Now we learn that, before he got to play the part of the forward-thinking political leader, some of his earlier performances were a little at odds with this.
On September 18, Time magazine released a photo of Trudeau, taken in 2001, in which he is seen, wearing brownface makeup and dressed up for an ‘Arabian Nights’ party taking place at the private school at which he was a teacher. The immediate response of the Liberal team to this bombshell was to send him out to speak to the media on the plane he is using for his election campaign. He, predictably, assured the country that he was sorry for what he had done but his first run at apologising was fairly perfunctory. He took responsibility but insisted he didn’t know at the time that what he was doing was racist. Questioned on whether his past was littered with any other such incidents, he owned up to having performed ‘The Banana Boat Song’ in blackface on another occasion.
It seems, however, that Trudeau was being far too modest and that his talents had been in some demand. A third incident rapidly emerged, this one consisting of a video showing him, once again in blackface, engaged in a rather striking display of racist mockery. Now, Trudeau had to admit that he was completely unsure of how many times he engaged in blackface performances and his political team worked to improve the quality of the apology. The new version sought to present a socially aware progressive who understood his past harmful failings but who had faced and subdued them.
“The fact is, I didn't understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day. I have always acknowledged I come from a place of privilege, but I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot."
The problem is that by the time he was a twenty-nine-year-old teacher in 2001, the racist nature and ugly history of blackface routines in Canada were well known. Moreover, Justin Trudeau is, indeed, the quintessential product of privileged liberalism. At root, his racist antics are not personal lapses but reflect the shallowness and hypocrisy of the social layer he is part of. The Liberal Party has taken turns with the Tories at governing at the federal level since the Canadian state was formed. It’s ‘progressive values’ have always masked the ugly reality of what it does when it is in power and the Trudeau regime expresses this in particularly stark terms.
There are politicians who attend Pride parades because they feel they must but Justin Trudeau basks in glory when he shows up at them. Yet his government arms the Saudi torture state, which among other horrors, punishes gay sex with death by stoning. He has promised that a new relationship between Canada and the Indigenous Peoples will be created, based on ‘reconciliation,’ yet, just in the last few days, an Indigenous community in northern Ontario has had to evacuate families because of the complete breakdown of their water supply system. It is a crisis within a crisis because the people of Neskantaga First Nation have gone without drinkable water for some twenty five years.
Trudeau waxes eloquent before the UN, declaring himself a champion of international justice, while Canadian mining companies plunder poor countries and Canada backs anti-democratic coups in Haiti, Honduras and Venezuela. He distances himself from crude climate denying conservatives but builds environmentally disastrous pipelines and engages in what we might term ‘climate hypocrisy.’
The Liberal leader can talk about inclusiveness all he wants but the operation he fronts accepts and reinforces racism and racial hierarchy at every turn. With considerable irony, one of Trudeau’s many heartfelt apologies was delivered at the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, after a group of Black youth were subjected to appalling racist treatment while sitting in the cafeteria in the Canadian Parliament.
Is it really any wonder that a man groomed for such a role would express its fundamental duplicity in his personal life? Trudeau’s earlier indiscretions point to the moral bankruptcy of elite liberalism and take the cover off the great injustices and deeply ingrained racism that is so fundamental to Canadian society.
The blackface scandal breaks just as the Trudeau government seeks re-election. It seems to symbolise the whole crisis of the neoliberal centre. It is often said of the Liberal Party that they campaign on the left and govern on the right and, battered and discredited though this government may be, Trudeau was just getting into the performance of his life. He was set to present himself as the voice of the progressive but realistic alternative so as to hold off the Tories on the right and the New Democratic Party (NDP) on the left. The scandal is certainly, in terms of electoral considerations, a blow to Trudeau’s progressive credentials at a very unfortunate moment.
Whether the Liberals muddle through this time or not, however, the Trudeau brand is well past its shelf life and the fact that this champion of multicultural values played to the racist gallery with an act dating back to slavery and colonialism only makes that clearer. In fairness, blackface is not the disguise Trudeau wears most the time. He normally hides what he is behind a thin progressive veneer. Without that veneer, all that’s left is a political operation that upholds inequality and rests on racial hierarchy as surely as the crudest right wing Tory populism could ever do.
John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.