Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has apologised following the publication of a photograph that showed him wearing brownface make-up at a party 18 years ago, as he scrambled to get on top of a fresh blow to a re-election campaign dogged by controversy.
Time magazine published the photograph on Wednesday, one week into a federal election campaign pitting Trudeau’s Liberal Party against the opposition Conservatives led by Andrew Scheer.
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The election is scheduled to take place on October 21.
Trudeau, 47, whose party won a landslide victory in 2015, has already been under pressure over a corruption scandal and other controversies.
The just-published black-and-white photograph shows Trudeau, then 29, wearing a turban and robes with his face, neck and hands darkened at a party in 2001.
The picture appears in the 2000-2001 yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private school where Trudeau taught at the time, the US-based Time magazine said.
Trudeau confirmed it was him in the photo “at the school’s annual dinner which had a costume theme of ‘Arabian Nights.'”
“I have worked all my life to try to create opportunities for people, fight against racism and intolerance,” he told a televised news conference on his campaign aircraft.
“I can say I made a mistake when I was younger and I wish I hadn’t. I wish I had known better then, but I didn’t and I’m deeply sorry for it.”
“Now I recognise it was something racist to do,” he said.
“(For) communities and people who live with intersectionalities and face discrimination, it is a significant thing that is very hurtful.”
Trudeau, once the youthful golden boy of Canadian politics, also admitted to wearing dark makeup singing Harry Belafonte’s 1959 hit Day O (Banana Boat Song) at a separate high school talent contest.
‘Racism is real’
In response to the controversy, Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer said his Liberal rival is unfit to govern the country.
“I was extremely shocked and disappointed when I learned of Justin Trudeau’s actions this evening.”
Exclusive: Justin Trudeau wore brownface at 2001 ‘Arabian Nights’ party while he taught at a private school, Canada's Liberal Party admits https://t.co/j3UobfYNIF
— TIME (@TIME) September 18, 2019
“Wearing brown face is an act of open mockery and racism. What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.”
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the third-placed New Democratic Party, reacted by calling the behaviour “troubling” and “insulting.”
“Any time we hear examples of brown face or blackface, it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live and what their lived experiences are,” he said.
“What does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the colour of their skin, face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their life. Racism is real.”
Steven Chase, national correspondent for The Globe and Mail newspaper, said the incident has created a moment of political crisis for the leader.
“It has basically thrown his campaign plans off track for the moment,” Chase told Al Jazeera from Ottawa.
“This is a country of immigrants … We bring in 300,000 immigrants every year,” he said.
“What he [Trudeau] faces here suggests he is not who he says he is. He has been a very politically correct leader … Also suggesting his opponents are racists.
“It’s a bit of a challenge for his brand, and voters who are undecided … He’s going to have to convince them this is just a blip.”
Politicians in Canada’s southern neighbour the United States, with its history of slavery and segregation, have been embroiled in scandal this year over their alleged wearing of “blackface.”
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam refused to resign after first admitting he appeared in a yearbook photograph showing a person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, only to deny a day later that either individual was him.
Trudeau is a fervent advocate of the multiculturalism integral to Canadian identity, and at least six members of his cabinet have Asian or African heritage.
Accusations of political meddling in a bribery case against engineering giant SNC-Lavalin saw Trudeau’s support plunge at the beginning of the year.
The scandal broke when two members of Trudeau’s own cabinet accused him and his aides of meddling in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin to save jobs.
Both the ministers were women and one was Canada’s first indigenous lawyer general. They were expelled from the party.
That episode could cost Trudeau support among women, indigenous communities and young people — constituents who helped propel him to victory in 2015.
Trudeau is the son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, who is considered the father of modern Canada.
The younger Trudeau’s stint as a teacher belonged to a colourful past that also included working as a snowboard instructor, a bartender and a bouncer.