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Trudeau blackface controversy reverberates in Atlantic Canada

 A photo posted online by Time, showing Justin Trudeau with dark makeup on his face, neck and hands.
A photo posted online by Time, showing Justin Trudeau with dark makeup on his face, neck and hands. - Time
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

As the political world continues to reel following the revelation of at least three instances of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau using blackface, some in Atlantic Canada wonder where the conversation will go next. 

The revelation came late on Wednesday after a picture published by Time magazine showed Trudeau with dark paint on his skin attending a gala at a Vancouver private school in 2001.

Trudeau says he was dressed as Aladdin. Since then, two more images have surfaced of different instances where a younger Trudeau also wore blackface. 

The history of blackface goes back to at least the early 1800s, if not as far back as the 1400s. White actors changing the colour of their skin with dark makeup has been used by American actors such as Al Jolson and on the BBC through “The Black and White Minstrel Show” (which was on the air until 1978) to denigrate non-white populations into a caricature. 

Prajwala Dixit, an engineer and journalist originally from India, says the ties to blackface and colonialist attitudes run deep.

“Brownface and blackface carry heavy baggage in terms of its colonial past and history and the way it started out to begin with. For me, having not grown up on this side of the world, it reminds me of growing up in India,” she said. 

“Out there, skin lightening is preferred and pushed. There’s always this preference towards lighter skin, regardless of where I am. I’m here, I see that. I’m there, and I saw that, too. The way colonization has impacted us, it will take, I think for us, a couple generations to sort of wean ourselves off of that mindset and thinking. We’re all works in progress.”

Does the bell toll for Trudeau?

Another photo of Justin Trudeau at West Point Grey Academy’s 2001 “Arabian Nights” gala, published in the school’s ViewPoints newsletter.
Another photo of Justin Trudeau at West Point Grey Academy’s 2001 “Arabian Nights” gala, published in the school’s ViewPoints newsletter.

The Atlantic region is predominantly populated by those of white/European descent. According to the 2011 census data, 91 per cent of Nova Scotians are of white/European descent. In Newfoundland and Labrador, it’s 94 per cent, in New Brunswick, it’s 95 per cent, and in Prince Edward Island, 98 per cent of the population have colonial roots.

An early poll, released on Thursday by Toronto-based Advanced Symbolics, suggests the toll on Trudeau’s popularity is already being felt. 

The polling company is projecting in its most recent data that the Liberals will lose 23 seats — enough for the Liberals to lose a majority, should the numbers remain the same come Oct. 21. 

“Early indications are that the impact of this scandal is severe,” wrote Advanced Symbolics CEO Erin Kelly.

Jose Rivera, executive director of the Refugee and Immigrant Advisory Council in St. John’s, says he hopes issues important to newcomers to the country don’t get lost in the political boil. 

“It’s a silly disguise in 2001. It has no meaning whatsoever. We don’t see that as an issue at all. We have discussed that with people here,” said Rivera. 

“In the meantime, more important topics for refugees and immigrants in Newfoundland and Labrador go unchecked. We don’t give it any importance whatsoever. We are just worried about opportunities to stay here and prosper in Canada.”

"We don’t give it any importance whatsoever. We are just worried about opportunities to stay here and prosper in Canada.” — Jose Rivera

Rivera says the people he represents have more immediate concerns than whether or not Trudeau had bad judgement at the time the various photos were taken.

“Access to child care, for instance, that’s quite a bit more important,” he said.

“The other aspect that we have in mind currently is about transportation. A big component why people leave this province is because transportation is complicated, it’s inefficient.”

Asking for forgiveness, and your vote

Trudeau takes questions from reporters following the revelation he's appeared in blackface on multiple occasions. - Reuters
Trudeau takes questions from reporters following the revelation he's appeared in blackface on multiple occasions. - Reuters

Tony Ince, Nova Scotia’s minister of African Nova Scotia Affairs, says Trudeau’s apology was genuine, but there’s a chance for meaningful conversation to be had across the country.

“I was quite surprised, a little disappointed. The prime minister stood up, he addressed it. There is no place for that. A lot of people can make a lot of mistakes, but there is no place for it,” said Ince.

“I believe Mr. Trudeau was genuinely, honestly sorry for what he has done. It was a real mistake in judgment, a couple of times. We have a lot of work to do dealing with so many other things. Those types of incidents don’t help, but they also give us an opportunity to have that uncomfortable conversation that we need to have and we need to have it more frequently."

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil says he listened to Trudeau’s Wednesday night apology, noting the sincerity he felt came through. 

“The prime minister said that it was a mistake on his part. I think he regretted it deeply. He asked for forgiveness from the Canadian population and Canadians will decide,” McNeil told reporters at a news conference marking the International Decade for People of African Descent.

McNeil says he hopes his government can continue to work toward equality for all.

“I hope I am judged and our government is judged on the actions that we’ve had with our communities, with the aboriginal community, the African Nova Scotia community. We want to make sure that we embrace and include them in the process of everyday lives in this province,” he said. 

“The goal is that the child born today, regardless of who they are born to, where they are born, what their descent is, what the colour of their skin is, that they have the same opportunity for success as every other child in this province. Today is a good step toward that.”

With files from Francis Campbell


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