Spared of the divisive racial narrative in the neighbouring United States of America, the colour of the skin ~ artificial or otherwise ~ has cropped up in Canada exactly a month ahead of the election on 21 October. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau seems acutely aware that so sensitive an issue could well influence the coloured segment of the electorate. Hence his acknowledgment on Friday that he let down his supporters ~ and all Canadians of colour ~ by appearing years ago in brownface and blackface.
“I hurt people who in many cases consider me an ally,” said Mr Trudeau. “I let a lot of people down,” he said. Yet he would be fortunate if the scandal’s fallout is limited in a country that fortunately has not been roiled by racist violence and the power of the gun. The controversy has already had a political fallout and the flutter in the roost is unmistakable. Trudeau, who is seeking a second term as Prime Minister, has readily been debunked by his leading opponent, Andrew Scheer of the Conservative Party, as “not fit to govern” because of the revelations. But key figures in Trudeau’s Liberal Party remain ever so loyal, including Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who would be a favourite to replace him as Liberal leader if he lost the election.
Many minority Canadians, increasingly active in politics and government, seem ready to forgive Trudeau. “As I have gotten to know Justin, I know these photos do not represent the person he is now, and I know how much he regrets it,” said Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, a Sikh. It is generally expected that the Prime Minister will weather the storm. He may even be drawing some sympathy before the votes are cast. But there is little doubt that the colour issue has made his position a mite fragile, though a change can be fairly ruled out.
It would be less than fair to aver, as is being done in certain quarters, that Trudeau is a hypocrite when it comes to race and diversity. Not the least because his cabinet is the most diverse in Canadian history in terms of gender and ethnic background. The brownface controversy surfaced on Wednesday when Time magazine published a photo from a yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Trudeau was once a teacher. The magazine shows the then 29-year-old Trudeau at an “Arabian Nights” party in 2001 wearing a turban and robe with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.
Trudeau said that he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.” Canada has no legacy of slavery or huge gaps in wealth and poverty. The election-eve news break from Canada is “a media bombshell,” as Nelson Wiseman, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, has remarked. It remains open to question whether colour and race will lead to a psephological swing in Canada.