What was Trudeau thinking?

By Kofi K. Achampong

At one point in his life, Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, was obsessed with darkening his skin to appear either brown or black.  You really can’t make this stuff up – no pun intended. It’s a weird thought. And if I’m being honest, a little bit disturbing. But alas, here we are, thirteen days into a Canadian federal election, and this peculiar – and racist habit – is what has overwhelmingly dominated the headlines.

Kofi Achampong

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last few weeks, you would’ve seen the images. The first set of pics came out in a Time magazine article and showed the Prime Minister donning what appeared to be stereotypically Middle Eastern dress with his face darkened for effect at an event for a private school he used to teach at in Vanvouver, BC. He was around 29 years old at the time.

There were more pictures to come including someone with him holding a microphone and appearing as some sort of entertainer – possibly Harry Belafonte (He admits to singing Dayo in blackface) – and the other, a grainy three second moving clip of him has him gesturing his hands, while completely painted in black (even underneath his pants) and seemingly miming something in full ecstasy at the absurdity of his appearance.

The images are disturbing. If you were to psychoanalyze them, you’d be left with many questions about just what in the world was going on in the mind of Justin Trudeau at that stage in life.

If you’re black like me, the images are especially difficult to look at. If you’re black like me and also someone that’s worked for the Liberals (albeit at provincial level for 5 years) and helped organize a recent fundraiser where the party targeted Black Liberal supporters and raised well over $100,000, in particular, the images can feel like an utter betrayal. There’s really no way to square the idea that someone who you thought appreciated the plight of racialized people, could have been so ignorant in his past.

How is it that the first Prime Minister to ever directly reference Black Canadians and anti-black racism in a Budget could have been so unaware about the history of blackface only 18 years ago? How is it that a Prime Minister who has committed at least $44 million in two years directly to the black community and well over $100 million in other indirect programming could have been so oblivious to the pain of what those images represented? These are questions many of us are asking.

But as in most difficult moments in life, there’s always a silver lining – if you’re willing to look deeper. So let’s look at that. First, from a strictly strategic standpoint, the news of these images came out very early in the campaign. That means the party has time to examine how it’s effecting both Trudeau as well as the party’s overall numbers. Preliminary poll numbers from and Ipsos poll conducted for Global News between September 20-23 suggest the Liberals have been hurt by #blackfacegate, but not fatally wounded — yet. Recent numbers have the Liberals dropping about three percentage points, with the Tories holding an edge at of about a 4% (36% for Cons and 32% for Libs). If these numbers don’t trend towards a lasting nosedive, there’s always a chance for reversal.

At a more personal level, the same poll found that when asked who would make the best Prime Minister – Andrew Scheer or Justin Trudeau – voters believe that Trudeau was still the right man for the job at a rate of 33% to 31%, reflecting a 5% drop from the previous week. That same poll saw an increase of 4% for Jagmeet Singh from 10%-14%, reflecting perhaps a migration of racially-sensitive Liberals to the NDP camp. It’s certainly too early to tell if the trend against the party and their leader will continue, but if there’s any good news for the party, it’s that the ship isn’t necessarily crashing.

There are also some other positives of note. Almost without a doubt, had these photos emerged in an American context, there would’ve been calls from within the party for the leader to resign. Right now, to my knowledge, not one Liberal MP or candidate has indicated that they believe he should step down. That’s a sign that the people working with you don’t think you are damaged goods about to sink their ship. It also says something about Canada – but I’ll leave that for another conversation.

The other positive for the Prime Minister is also somewhat ironically indicative of how this problem even emerged. That is, most Canadians, even the racialized one’s to an extent don’t really care. Notwithstanding all the good feigning of offense and indignation that’s been put out in the media of late, if you know the electorate of this country, you know that most people don’t even feel comfortable acknowledging racism for too long. It makes Canadians – the white ones especially – uncomfortable to stay within the midst of ‘race talk’ for too long. That’s because Canada really subsists on weird cognitive dissonance about itself and its settler-colony past. White people just don’t like to imagine that they are progeny of some deeply racist people who stole other people’s lands and kept them away so that they could re-imagine this country in their own image. And ironically, that can help the Prime Minister.

In fact, in Quebec – the Prime Minister’s home province – there’s reason to think that he won’t be affected in the slightest. The Prime Minister is still seen as a son on of the land and his views about race, multiculturalism and inclusion are well known. A recent Ipsos poll has Trudeau up 15% points ahead of Scheer. Even his critique of Bill 21 – the patently racist and absurd secularism law that the Prime Minister has openly stated his opposition to and vowed to consider challenging – hasn’t hurt him. Race and racism just isn’t as big of a deal as some would like to make it. In fact, I’d surmise that coming down on him too hard for what he did before he became a well-known progressive champion, may have the effect of actually galvanizing sympathy and support for him in parts of the country.

Finally, there’s another way in which these tragic revelations can help Trudeau, but it’s a bit more personal and concerns his own legacy. There’s no doubt the Prime Minister has been embarrassed by these events. Of course, this is not to minimize the hurt he’s caused to others – particularly those of us in the Black community who have viewed him as an imperfect ally in the fight against systemic racism. But the Prime Minister’s opportunity here extends far beyond this election cycle. It involves the Prime Minister doing some serious soul-searching and asking himself how he’s going to use his misfortune and to re-write his story. He has expressed sincere contrition and we can only take him at his word. The next step is to see his words manifest into action. We’re all watching now.

Kofi K. Achampong is a Lawyer and Political Advisor based in the City of Toronto. He recently worked as a Senior Policy and Stakeholer Relations Advisor to various Ontario Liberal Cabinet Ministers for over 5 years. He dedicates much of his time to addressing issues of racial justice and opportunity for Canada’s Black and Muslim communities.