‘Why did he think this was a good idea?’: In the GTA, complex reactions to Justin Trudeau’s blackface photos

‘Why did he think this was a good idea?’: In the GTA, complex reactions to Justin Trudeau’s blackface photos

It was the second photo that particularly shocks Yuvraj Singh — the one in which Justin Trudeau is grinning beneath full dark makeup, his arms around two men who, like him, are wearing turbans.

“I feel like that picture is making fun of my culture,” Singh says, speaking outside the Gurdwara Dasmesh Darbar temple in the riding of Brampton East.

At nearby Castlebrooke Secondary School, 17-year-old Anoushka Aurora wants to know why the Liberal leader kept it a secret, why he couldn’t use his own past to lead a discussion on racism. “He should have taken ownership,” she says.

For Jhanoi Walker, a student at York University in the riding of Humber River—Black Creek, there’s one question that lingers: “Why did he think this was a good idea?”

Across the GTA on Thursday, people of colour told the Star how they were reacting to the fact Canada’s most powerful politician chose to wear blackface makeup.

Between now and election day, the Star is looking at how local issues are shaping the campaign, and although those photos did not happen locally, the anger, disappointment and confusion they caused emphatically did.

According to the 2016 census, slightly fewer than half of GTA residents identify as visible minorities; more than a majority in the cities of Toronto, Ajax, Mississauga, Richmond Hill, Brampton and Markham.

In them, Trudeau’s Liberals head into the Oct. 21 election holding all but one riding (Markham-Unionville, held by Conservative incumbent Bob Saroya). In the GTA as a whole, they hold all but three.


Many people the Star spoke to for this story had a complex reaction; most, but not all, said they could forgive.

Ibrahim Mohamed, 24, who lives in Toronto’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood said he’s “not OK” with the photos, but accepts Trudeau’s apology.

A photo of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wearing racist makeup from the April 2001 newsletter of West Point Grey Academy, the private school where he was a teacher at the time.

“I just don’t believe that man’s a racist,” Mohamed said. “I’ve never thought my politicians were perfect.”

Velma Morgan, chair of the Toronto-based group Operation Black Vote Canada, said she spoke with Trudeau on Thursday and takes his apology “at his word.” Still, she said, there is no excuse for blackface, not in 2019, not in 2001.

“My skin colour isn’t a costume for you to decide to wear,” she said.

Brampton resident Durchan Punn, who immigrated from India about 20 years ago, said Trudeau “probably is not a racist person deep down,” but he’s not sure he can vote for his party again — “I don’t know how to trust his judgment anymore.”

That point may be particularly damaging to Trudeau, said Peter Loewen, a University of Toronto political science professor who researches voter behaviour

Political scientists largely agree a leader’s performance is the crucial factor in their party’s success, more important on average than any local issue.


According to Loewen’s research, the 2015 election swung largely on a strategic vote against former-prime minister Stephen Harper and Trudeau’s success convincing voters to trust him as a person and leader.

But this is not the first time Trudeau’s judgment in nonpublic settings has been questioned, Loewen said, pointing as an example to the leader’s sarcastic dismissal of Indigenous protesters during a Liberal fundraiser earlier this year. Those negative impressions add up, Loewen said.

Perhaps worse, he said, much of Trudeau’s appeal in 2015 was based on perceptions of his compassion and empathy. “What happens once people view him as not likeable?”

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Sabreena Ghaffar-Siddiqui, a McMaster University researcher and expert on racism and Islamophobia, said she’s worried Canada is going to lose voters over the scandal.

She says she’s wasn’t surprised to learn a prominent white politician had hid a racist act from his past, but the fact that leader is “liberal, friendly and popular” among people of colour hurts.

Still, Trudeau’s apology is a “really good opportunity” to confront structural racism in Canada, she said.

Will voters abandon the Liberals over the photos? That’s an open question, said Ryerson University political science professor Daniel Rubenson, who is part of the team running the massive Canadian Election Study, which aims to survey about 45,000 Canadians through the campaign.

Most evidence does not support the belief that negative campaign events depress voter turnout, he said, but, then, the blackface photos are without precedent in Canadian politics.

Rubenson spoke to the Star Thursday morning as he and study’s team were scrambling to put out a set of new questions to Canadians, hoping to study how they are processing what they saw and heard from Trudeau, and how that might change their vote.

Rubenson compared the photos to the “Access Hollywood” audiotape of Donald Trump making obscene comments about groping women, released about a month before the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

“It’s on that level,” he said.

(The evidence suggests the Trump tape didn’t sway many voters, Rubenson said, cautioning that Canada is not nearly as politically polarized as the U.S.)

Walker, the York student, says he hopes to become a high school teacher after graduating, like the Liberal leader was in 2001.

After the apology, Walker says he’ll be watching what Trudeau does next to address racism and poverty in communities like Jane and Finch.

“If someone just says they’re sorry, and they don’t do anything after that, then they aren’t sorry.”

Ed Tubb

Ed Tubb is an assignment editor and a contributor to the Star’s coverage of the 2019 federal election. He is based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @edtubb
Gilbert Ngabo

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