HAMILTON — Justin Trudeau headed into the second full week of his re-election campaign on Sunday with his Enlightened 21st-Century Gentleman persona all-but-obliterated by a thick layer of dark makeup. He seems to be done apologizing, though.
Asked in Brampton, Ont. whether he could definitively say he hadn’t worn blackface since 2001, when he slid down the proverbial banister into a black-tie fundraiser dressed as Aladdin, he claimed to have been “very clear with Canadians on this issue over the last couple of days.” He pledged to continue to be very clear.
“We are going to work together to build a brighter future,” he said, “and that involves making important choices in this election about whether to cut taxes for the wealthiest one per cent, cut taxes for big polluters the way Conservatives want to do, or whether we invest in Canadians and keep moving forward the way we are doing.”
So no: He can’t or won’t guarantee he hasn’t worn blackface since 2001. But like a stressed-out dad who’s missed his kid’s second-consecutive piano recital and will try his best in future but can’t really guarantee anything, he comes bearing gifts:
– One, a tax cut for individuals making less than $210,000 a year, in the form of an increased basic personal exemption — almost $2,000 more per year by 2023 for those making less than $148,000. (Those making between $148,000 and $210,000 would enjoy progressively lesser benefit.) The Liberals claim the average family would be $600 better off.
– Two — a populist classic! — cheaper cell phone bills, by a whopping 25 per cent no less. This would ostensibly be accomplished by privileging new market entrants who emphasize affordability and by threatening the big telecoms with regulatory action if they don’t dial down the greed. It’s the sort of promise that tends to melt in the sun of government; Ontarians may be reminded of endless promises to reduce car-insurance rates. But it’s certainly tantalizing.
Time and again now, no matter what the question, Trudeau drops the same line: The Tories want to make life easier for oil companies and the richest of the rich, while he wants to “invest in Canadians.” Blackface or no blackface, that’s what’s in the shop window. And it may well be that in the end, the whole blackface thing won’t affect the outcome. If it has meaningfully shifted popular opinion, that hasn’t manifested in the polls thus far. Many Canadians, especially in Quebec, just see a guy in fancy dress — who cares?
Indeed, the francophone punditocracy has essentially united in arguing at least that we get some perspective — “Let’s be serious. Does anyone really believe Mr. Trudeau is a racist?” an editorial in Liberal-friendly La Presse asked rhetorically — and at most that Trudeau did absolutely nothing wrong or worth apologizing for. “Scandal! A man wore a costume!” was the sardonic headline to hardline nationalist Mathieu Bock-Côté’s Saturday column in Le Journal de Montréal . “It shows how much Canada is still characterized by its two solitudes,” he suggested, and he’s right.
Asked on Sunday if his penance ought to include speaking to those in his party who don’t think blackface is a big deal, he said he was focusing on reaching out to the racialized (his word) people who were most hurt by these revelations. Two solitudes aside, it’s not a great answer. In combination with his walking-on-eggs performance over Quebec’s new restrictions on religious freedoms for civil servants, it further damages the champion-of-inclusivity image he and his team so carefully crafted in the years leading up to 2015.
But then, most Liberal voters don’t need or necessarily want that in a prime minister. They want a competent guy who isn’t a conservative and isn’t a socialist and will make incremental rather than revolutionary changes that don’t cost them too much money — and a few nice little presents along the way.
Canadians being who they are, it’s a solid pitch whoever’s making it. But it’s just such a crushingly prosaic comedown from 2015. And it’s so strange to imagine Trudeau embracing that sort of incrementalist, it-could-be-worse pitch, when he so clearly revelled in his now-ruined pantomime act. The Telegraph’s account of the 2001 Vancouver fundraiser quotes people suggesting his costume was in keeping with his “larger-than-life” personality. After the electoral reform debacle, his astonishing treatment of Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, his “thank you for your donation” remark to Grassy Narrows protesters, and now a history of blackface, it’s tough to see how he can ever be that big a personality again.
Trudeau père very nearly lost his first re-election bid, besting Robert Stanfield by just two seats. But Pierre Elliott still had huge battles to fight and win: national unity, repatriating the constitution. Canadian politics moved past such grand ambitions many years ago. When Trudeau fils arrived at the Sheraton Hotel in Hamilton around 6:30 pm Sunday, he was greeted by a couple of hundred adoring partisans — and in he waded, shaking hands, grinning. But every major politician gets that. Trudeau is still in a good position to win, but does he really want to be just another plodding-along PM? No more glowing foreign press, no more We Days? He can still talk a big game, needless to say. But who would be listening?
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019