Is it a big deal? Is it as important as some people have made it out to be? What I am talking about is for many years in my native Trinidad I portrayed a mas called “Original Indian”. In order to do that I had to buy books, I had to learn languages, I had to understand the difference between a Mandan, Cherokee, Apache and others. I had to know what was meant when I painted my face in black and white, red or yellow; whatever I did I had to learn how to “bead”; yes, we did elaborate beading on chess pieces, apron pieces and headdresses
Today if I were to get caught doing that I would be accused of cultural appropriation, disrespect and a host of other things. But the reality to me and my friends at the time and to this day is simple – we celebrated the life of the Inuit, we celebrated the life and ways of life of the North American Indian; truth be told that when I was a child we played Cowboys and Indians, however, nobody wanted to be the Indian because you know they would have gotten killed easily and quickly. But once we grew up, we understood the Indian, the Inuit, we understood the First Nations people because we celebrated their lives and tried to live like them if only for two days a year.
We would do bead work; sometimes it took months to complete a single piece. Of course it would take you at least five months to complete. We did not spend all that time so that we could look down on the people that we were trying to become, we did not spend all that time because there was nothing better to do, and we spent that time because we had love and admiration for the First Nations people.
But here comes Justin Trudeau, a 29- year- old school teacher who specialized in drama, the art of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, the art of creating a link between you and your character and your audience. So when he’s called upon to play a Nazi officer of the 3rd Reich, he puts on his costume of that officer; when he is was called upon to play a character who was black, he coloured his face to fit the character.
When the news broke that Trudeau was in “brown face”, playing Aladdin, it came to me as no surprise that he would have worn brown face, because he was obviously in character, and when he got into character he got in all the way; indeed there was a hole in the pants that he was wearing and through that hole you could see brown skin. If that is not commitment to a role, I don’t know what is. So I went on the internet to look at some of the past costumes of Mr Trudeau – I saw black face, brown face, powdered white face, I saw moustaches and beards, everything that would complete the look of whatever part he was playing; even Superman complete with the glasses and hair combed to suit.
As far as I could see the only thing that Justin Trudeau should apologize for is the pain that some may have experienced due to a white man in brown face in 2019. But I think that he should have assured them that when he did it he meant no harm because let’s face it, 2001 was a lot different to 2019. In 2001 there were five women in the cabinet of Canada. In 2016 the same Trudeau insisted that woman had parity and explained it this way: “because it’s 2016”. The same Trudeau who wore brown face in 2001, welcomed over 40,000 South Asians to Canada while opposition parties fought tooth and nail against admitting them to Canada. He’s also the same man who had the foresight to put a black woman on the $10 bill for regular circulation – the first woman other than the Queen to Grace the face of Canadian currency. He is the same Trudeau who gave one hundred million dollars for the decade of the people of African descent.
It’s wrong to take an innocent picture from almost two decades ago and turn it into a weapon with which to change the agenda. We should instead take a good look at what he’s done for the country.
Selwyn Ifill, Toronto, ON.