The Palestinians have a spectacular rice-based dish that perfectly describes the predicament Justin Trudeau finds himself in today.
It’s called maklouba — Arabic for “upside-down” — and when brought to the dinner table it is a show unto itself. Cooked in stages and piled high, layer upon layer, when the maklouba is ready it is swiftly flipped over, sliding whole from the cooking pot onto the serving tray with a guest-dazzling flourish.
It’s about as theatrical as food gets — the delicious whole now upside down, layers exposed for all to see, ready to be devoured.
Translated to politics, the Liberal leader’s re-election campaign is now a steaming heap of maklouba. A prime ministerial persona piled high, layer upon progressive layer, since 2015 is now upside-down, all that sanctimony inverted by the release of a photograph of Trudeau costumed as a blackface Aladdin 18 years ago at an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala event for private school staff.
After three dizzying days of contrition, can Trudeau ever find his way out of the upside-down? Is political redemption even on the table?
First, let us recap just how bad it is: Bad enough that on Friday, as Trudeau resumed campaigning in Toronto, shaking hands along the Danforth, hecklers began returning the disrespect in kind. “Hi Mr. Blackface. Nice to meet you,” one woman told him.
Bad enough to raise the eyebrows of none other than U.S. President Donald Trump, who on Friday declared himself “surprised” by the Canadian leader’s widening blackface scandal, adding, “I was more surprised when I saw the number of times.”
Bad enough that Canada took a rare turn as a racist punchline in the late-night television comedy mill. The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah wondered at the tone of makeup Trudeau employed during the Vancouver school event where he once taught. “If you are going to darken your skin, at least get the colour right,” the South African comedian. “Trudeau isn’t dressed as Aladdin, he’s dressed as Aladdin doing blackface,” Noah joked.
Late Night host Seth Meyers declared the photo “so bad that Canadians travelling in Europe are going to start telling people they’re American.” The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert fist-bumped, gleeful that for once, this wasn’t a made-in-America racism scandal. “I just want to say — it’s not us this time. Suck it, Canada!”
Now three days into Project Contrition, Trudeau’s mea culpas are piling up like, well, maklouba. Wednesday’s crisis-mode apology covering two separate revelations of donning blackface — “I’m pissed off at myself” — became Thursday’s acknowledgment that he was blinded by “layers of privilege” in what by then had become three such incidents.
By Friday, Trudeau stood again in the Klieg lights of shame, pledging to reach out and apologize personally to NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, whose own compassion has been evident since the scandal broke, articulating and empathizing for the pain the Trudeau images inflict upon every Canadian of colour.
Whether it is anywhere near enough — whether these deepening expressions of contrition open a pathway to a second chance — depends as much on the skin you are in as the trust you bestow.
In my own lily-white skin, I can’t help but wonder how Trudeau was hardly a know-nothing teacher in 2001 — he was a 29-year-old figure of authority, teaching young minds while simultaneously painting himself tone-deaf black. And that, in turn, reminds me of the best teacher I ever had — who also happens to have done, until now, the worst thing I can remember a teacher ever doing.
Mr. Milne, our Grade Six homeroom teacher at Langstaff Public School on Yonge Street in Thornhill, one day sprang a “surprise test” — but as he distributed the handout pages, belly laughs ensued. Under the heading “Newfoundland IQ Test” were questions along the lines of “What is 2 plus 2?” and “If the sky and the ocean both are blue, which one is made of water?”
Hilarious to all but me — the lone kid of Newfoundland descent, left red-faced, shrinking in my seat, horrified. I slipped the “test” into my pocket, brought it home and my dad subsequently ranted and roared like a true Newfoundlander all the way to the top of what was then the York County Board of Education.
This was before cancel culture — early 1970s Toronto, when noxious “Newfie” jokes and “Paki” jokes travelled in tandem on the tips of so many Canadian lips, quick to mock accents then regarded as somehow déclassé. My parents weren’t out for Milne’s job. They just wanted him to smarten the hell up.
Did he ever. No teacher in my experience ever gave so much, routinely spending his evenings and even some weekends with the class. He taught many of his students chess in his spare time. He initiated a classroom rewards system with field trips to cool places — and you didn’t need to score As to be part of it, anyone who raised their grade so much as a single notch was welcome on the next outing.
Mr. Milne was for me a profound and early lesson in human contradiction — that good people sometimes get things horribly wrong. And by extension, if we are to snip people out of career existence based on their very worst decisions, we should all brace for the same treatment.
The thing about the children of migrants from Newfoundland is, we’re everywhere. The contempt and ridicule heaped on the new arrivals in the 1970s for the way they spoke fell away as our Toronto-born generation emerged with no detectable accent, morphing seamlessly and painlessly into the white Canadian mainstream. Compare that to, say, the lived experience of my Pakistani classmates, some of who by now have grandchildren the age that we were then, and there is of course no comparison. Our pain is paltry, theirs lifelong. What does a Grade Sixer today in skin other than white feel upon seeing repeat images of Trudeau in blackface? How deep is the damage, how deep their pain?
Singh, to his considerable credit, seized upon that very question the night Trudeau’s blackface scandal broke, saying: “Tonight is not about the prime minister, it’s about every young person mocked for the colour of their skin. The child who had their turban ripped off their head. And those reliving intense feelings of pain and hurt from past experiences of racism. To you, I say you are loved.”
It is truly sobering, for those who follow the actual science of climate change, that an election that will go far toward deciding Canada’s role in combating the threat now may hinge on a few tins of theatrical paint and one man’s colossally bad decisions to use them. But that’s the upside-down we’re in now.
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A contrite Trudeau, however, is a very new kind of Trudeau — never before seen, not even during the worst of the slow-motion SNC-Lavalin scandal, when the excuse of saving Canadian jobs grew evermore threadbare.
And senior Liberals now are embracing and underlining that contrition — Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland among them Friday afternoon, with a statement saying though “troubled and disappointed” by the images of Trudeau, “the apology he made to the people he has hurt is sincere and deeply felt.”
It’s impossible to say if any of this will turn things right-side up — or at least give the Liberal leader a pathway back toward re-election. But with their fates entwined, Freeland offered herself as character witness to the Trudeau she knows, saying, “I have seen firsthand over the past six years Justin Trudeau’s commitment to creating a better country for all Canadians… I believe in his commitment to do better … I will continue to listen to and learn from people of colour in my own riding (University-Rosedale), and across the country, as we work together to build a fairer, more inclusive and more just Canada.”