MONTREAL—At the peak of the storm over Justin Trudeau’s blackface photos last Thursday, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh took time out to give what will likely have been the most watched French-language interview of his election campaign.
Singh and his Bloc Québécois rival Yves-François Blanchet both drew slots on the opening broadcast of the latest season of Radio-Canada’s popular talk show Tout le monde en parle (TLMEP).
(Interviews with the other main leaders are tentatively scheduled for the next few weeks. For those unfamiliar with the television show, it is normally taped on Thursday evening and subsequently edited for a Sunday broadcast.)
The notion that the late Jack Layton’s 2011 appearance on TLMEP triggered that year’s orange wave has by now become deeply ensconced in New Democrat lore.
But as is often forgotten, it took Layton four campaigns and about half a dozen appearances on TLMEP to get the time of day from Quebec voters. With the NDP so far behind, it would likely take more than a well-executed TV appearance such as Singh’s on Sunday to bring it back in the game.
But beyond an opportunity to again show Quebecers that there is a more to his political persona than his signature turban, Singh got an early chance to assess the damage inflicted on the Liberals in Quebec by the previous day’s blackface bombshell. A huge crater he did not find.
The issue did not come up until the eleventh minute of the 16-minute interview broadcast on Sunday and then for little more than 90 seconds.
Ditto in the case of Blanchet’s interview.
Both leaders gave relatively similar responses, steering well clear of calling Trudeau a racist or of imputing racist motives to his actions. Instead each questioned his judgment.
This is an instance where caution was undoubtedly the better part of valour.
For while Singh was taping TLMEP, Dany Laferrière, Quebec’s best-known Haitian-born writer, was on television denouncing what he described as the trivialization of the concept of racism for political purposes.
From the perspective of the award-winning author, Trudeau had no cause to apologize other than to prevent his rivals from scoring cheap points at his expense.
Quebec’s Black Coalition’s reaction ran along the same lines.
Its spokesperson, Dan Philip, an activist who is not known for mincing his words, reserved his harshest comments for those who were accusing the Liberal leader of racist acts. He accused them of “swimming in a pool of hypocrisy.”
Not all the Quebec reactions were as forgiving. But by and large the provincial organizations that lobby for various visible minority communities more readily accepted Trudeau’s apology than Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer. They all took time to talk positively about the Liberal record in office.
Quebec was never going to be the ground zero of a backlash against the Liberal leader for his blackface appearances.
As federal leader and prime minister, Trudeau has consistently come in for criticism from various Quebec quarters for his oft-professed attachment to Canada’s policy of multiculturalism and his promotion of diversity as a national value.
Indeed, prior to the blackface episode, Trudeau had spent the first week of the campaign under attack in his home-province for being the only national leader to refuse to close the door to a possible federal participation in a court challenge of Bill 21, Quebec’s law on secularism.
So far, Liberal fortunes in Quebec have weathered both controversies as well as the party could hope for.
According to the latest Abacus poll — done in the aftermath of the blackface revelations — only in Atlantic Canada are the Liberals further ahead of their rivals than in Quebec.
Province-wide the biggest battle is still between the Conservatives and the Bloc Québécois for second place. But in a host of francophone ridings outside Montreal, the fight between those two parties and the Liberals is more competitive than the numbers suggest.
There has been a slow but steady rise in Bloc Québécois fortunes. The fact that it is happening almost exclusively in francophone territory makes the Liberal situation province-wide look more comfortable than it really is.
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The two French-language debates scheduled for next week and the week after could still shake things up.
But if anything comes back to bite Trudeau on the leaders’ podium, it is more likely to be his Bill 21 stance or the decision to nationalize the Trans Mountain pipeline than the blackface pictures of his pre-politics past.
Meanwhile though and in light of the resilience of the Trudeau brand in Quebec, it is probably worth repeating that, in contrast with many other Canadians, most Quebecers never had sky high expectations of the Liberal leader. And that goes a long way to explain why buyer’s remorse is not much of a feature of this Quebec federal campaign.