Trudeau and blackface: it's time to stop a practice that's as Canadian as hockey

The 200-year-old racist tradition should have been relegated to the confines of history – yet this was not a one-off transgression

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in one of a number of blackface photos that have been leaked to the public. Courtesy West Point Grey Academy
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Canada has an international reputation as a culturally diverse nation with a policy and ethos of multiculturalism. Frequently compared to the US, many believe that Canadians “get it” as far as race relations are concerned.

Yet this month, three photographs surfaced of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – two in blackface and one in brownface. The 200-year-old practice of non-black performers darkening their skin in a caricature has long since been deemed racist. Mr Trudeau has admitted he does not know how many more photos or incidents of him wearing blackface took place, making it abundantly clear this was not a one-off transgression in his past but a recurring part of it.

The episodes involving Mr Trudeau, dating from his high school days to his time as a teacher at an elite school in his late 20s, did not take place in isolation. Blackface has been a central part of Canadian culture, as embedded in the national psyche as hockey.

The genre began in North America in the 1830s and 1840s. The minstrel show, a blend of music, dance, burlesque and comedy, centred on white men who would wear dark make-up made of a combination of burned, crushed champagne corks and water or petroleum jelly. The men would speak and sing in mock black vernacular dialect.

The shows echoed the story of slavery and black migration, with caricatures to boot, from Zip Coon, the black dandy with affectations and mannerisms to match his former slave masters, to Jim Crow, the happy, errant subordinate. They were pitted against one another in dramas perpetuating those stereotypes – one in the city and one on the plantation. This genre was the first distinctly American form of publicly staged commercial entertainment.

To perform blackface in the 21st century is to do so in a milieu where black and brown people are white Canadians' neighbours, students and peers. This was not the case a century ago

While blackface was created in the US to entertain white audiences, because it was dependent on audiences fluent in English (and slavery), it penetrated the English-speaking world. Far from being relegated to the confines of history, it is still performed in many countries, including Canada. In 2016, a female fan attending the Australian Open appeared in blackface, supposedly in support of tennis star Serena Williams. That was followed last year by three Australian footballers wearing blackface to mimic Williams and her sister Venus for an end-of-season celebration. And in Padstow in Cornwall, southwest England, residents have resisted protests to continue staging their Mummers' Day festival every year, which involves them blackening their faces and singing minstrel songs. The only concession they made was to change the name of the event from "Darkie Day".

In Toronto, blackface minstrel troupes first appeared in the early 1840s. There is clear evidence that members of Toronto's black community petitioned the city council annually until 1843 to prohibit these touring minstrel shows but by the end of the decade, blackface continued to draw large audiences to Toronto's theatres. There is also evidence that blackface has been performed across the country since the 1860s. The minstrel performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most popular.

Mr Trudeau has admitted he does not know how many more photos of him wearing blackface took place, making it clear this was not a one-off

By the 1920s and 1930s, professional blackface theatre was no longer as common. During this period, amateur, localised blackface was performed in churches, department stores, high schools, athletic clubs, women's auxiliary groups, summer camps, public parks and as fundraisers for the First World War. These shows reproduced the themes and songs of early minstrelsy. By the 1940s, blackface was no longer advertised in city newspapers and the professional touring troupes were no more but the genre was still commonly performed.

Since the 1990s, blackface at universities (primarily during Halloween or freshman events), involving white students dressed up as Jamaicans with fake dreadlocks, have made headlines after photographs were posted on social media. While black community representatives expressed outrage about these incidents and university officials unequivocally denounced the behaviour as inappropriate and racist, there have been instances where blackface has been defended. For instance, earlier this year, in a book about Canadian universities, Peter MacKinnon, the interim president at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, referred to costume parties involving white students in blackface as “just Halloween parties” and claimed there was a “lack of proportion in the responses to them”. Students at the university subsequently called for his resignation. However, Mr MacKinnon continued in his post for his full six-month term.

In the last few days, I have had many white people emailing me to tell me about the blackface show they performed in as a child or the photograph of a family member in a blackface performance. This is symptomatic of how endemic blackface really was – and is – in Canada. Canada’s indigenous communities have battled against discrimination and racial mimicry for centuries. As a result, many indigenous leaders in Canada have publicly condemned Mr Trudeau.

To perform blackface in the 21st century is to do so in a milieu where black and brown people are white Canadians' neighbours, students and peers. This was not the case a century ago.

In my own lifetime, I have personally experienced blackface at high school and university and not only is it offensive to me, it is also extremely hurtful. So why did Mr Trudeau do this?

Born into privilege in Ottawa, the nation’s capital, in 1971, Mr Trudeau, the eldest son of the former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, attended McGill University in Montreal, as did I, and then worked as a teacher in Vancouver at West Point Academy, a private day school. He also held jobs as a camp counsellor and snowboard instructor. This seemingly “normal” life helped to frame his public image as just another regular guy, not one of the elite.

Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau smiles as he campaigns in Toronto on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019.  Trudeau says he doesn't recall the pictures of his wearing blackface and brownface that have recently surfaced. Trudeau's campaign is trying to contain a growing furor after a yearbook photo surfaced of him in brownface at a 2001 "Arabian Nights" costume party and two other similar incidents came to light. With his bid for re-election just a month away, the 47-year-old Trudeau is begging Canadians to forgive him.  (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the campaign trail before next month's election. Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press via AP

In 2007, Mr Trudeau was nominated as a candidate for the Liberal Party, which his father had helped make synonymous with multiculturalism and diversity, representing the district of Papineau in Montreal. In 2013, he won the leadership of the Liberal Party and went on to become prime minister in the federal election two years later.

By all accounts, Mr Trudeau has always presented himself as a paragon of virtue and of tolerance. He has ingratiated himself upon the media and been featured in VogueGQ and other magazines, sometimes with his wife Sophie – a rarity for a politician but no doubt helped by the fact he is an attractive white male with style.

The Trudeaumania that accompanied his rise to power echoed the excitement and frenzy generated by his father becoming prime minister in 1968. Unlike his father, however, this prime minister has had his fair share of gaffes and missteps.

Most notably, he was mocked for donning traditional attire during his trip to India last year and participating in publicity stunts, such as a 2012 fundraiser boxing match with Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau that was broadcast live on Canadian television.

Politically, his record was initially quite favourable. From the outset, he was a champion for gender diversity, even declaring himself a feminist; he also publicly announced that Canada welcomed new immigrants, a move in stark contrast to US President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies.

This year, however, has been marked by faux pas. His move to approve the TransCanada pipeline, which will run directly through First Nations territory, with the potential to pollute and destroy indigenous lands, has angered many environmental activists and indigenous communities, particularly as he has done little to improve the living conditions on reservations. Last month Canada's Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion found Mr Trudeau improperly influenced then attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould by exerting pressure on her over an ongoing criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based engineering, procurement and construction company. The Liberal government has maintained there was no undue pressure and that Mr Trudeau's intention was to save jobs, but the episode has served to diminish trust in the prime minister. The blackface photos, then, have simply ramped up the debate about his integrity.

Whether you agree or not that Mr Trudeau's blackface incident was racist, he clearly lacks racial knowledge and that is one and the same thing

There are those among black and indigenous communities who disagree. They argue that blackface is just costuming and done in jest. All the brouhaha is just noise, they say, distracting us from larger issues. At the same time, recent polls have shown a divided electorate.

One survey conducted by Abacus Data found the blackface episode did not have a big impact on his popularity. However, a separate poll conducted by Nanos showed more people are now “unsure” who would make the best prime minister. One pollster has called it a “massive cannonball” striking at the heart of his image and potentially damaging his chances of re-election next month.

When Canadians head to the polls on October 21, Mr Trudeau’s leadership skills will also be on the ballot. Many think he should step down. If a member of parliament was caught with similar photos, they would have had to resign. And yet, Mr Trudeau marches on. He has apologised for his behaviour, blamed it on his “layers of privilege” and pleaded ignorance – but that’s about it.

Whether you agree or not that Mr Trudeau's blackface incident was racist, he clearly lacks racial knowledge and that, in some ways, is one and the same thing. His blackface has struck a chord with the nation – and the world – because it reveals how entrenched racism is in Canadian culture. What he now needs to do is engage in a thoughtful conversation about that racism and answer tough questions from the people he has harmed. That should be followed by instituting policies that seek to eradicate racism. His image has been tarnished and it will take a lot more than rhetoric to restore its sheen.

Dr Cheryl Thompson is an assistant professor at Ryerson University in Toronto and the author of Beauty in a Box: Detangling the Roots of Canada's Black Beauty Culture. Her book Uncle: Race, Nostalgia and the Politics of Loyalty will be published next year