Canadian politics don’t usually make front page news around the world. In recent years, two news stories became exceptions that proved this rule: the antics of then-Toronto mayor Rob Ford in 2013 and, two years later, new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s pithy response to questions about gender parity in his cabinet – “Because it’s 2015.” Many left-leaning Canadians considered these stories among the lowest lows and the highest highs of recent Canadian political history. Joining the ranks of those exceptions is now a new low. On September 18, revelations that Prime Minister Trudeau donned brownface in 2001 quickly appeared as the lead story on news websites in the United States and Britain.
Heading into the current federal election, many Canadians have applauded Trudeau as a leader who embraces diversity and champions reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations. His cabinet, unveiled in November 2015, included Canada’s first Muslim minister, as well as four members of Sikh origin. And Trudeau became a vocal champion and active agent of reconciliation between the Canadian government and the country’s First Nations. That Trudeau successfully cast himself as a leader who empathized with and understood the challenges facing diverse Canadians testifies to his skills as a politician. His approach rarely reminded voters that his background is, in many ways, strikingly different from that of most Canadians.
Justin Trudeau is the first-born son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau – the “greatest” Canadian prime minister, according to Canadians who voted in the CBC’s highly-publicized 2004 contest. Pierre Trudeau remained, in the early twenty-first century, the standard-bearer of the Liberal Party of Canada (often referred to as Canada’s “natural governing party”) and the longest-serving Canadian prime minister since World War II. The son of a wealthy Montreal businessman, Pierre Trudeau ascended to the position of prime minister in 1968 and with the exception of a nine-month hiatus, led the country until he retired from politics in 1984.
Born in 1971, while his father was prime minister, Justin Trudeau grew up with all the privilege that money and fame could buy. He lived in the prime minister’s residence, 24 Sussex Drive, and, after his father’s retirement, attended a private school in Montreal. The Canadian news media covered Justin Trudeau’s 2005 wedding – not unlike the U.S. media’s coverage of the wedding of John F. Kennedy Jr.’s – even though Trudeau had not yet entered politics. Justin Trudeau had every privilege imaginable in Canada – growing up with a father who was extremely well-informed about the world and savvy about politics and attending the best schools in the country. As a high school student, as a young professional, and, finally, as a politician, Trudeau was privy to as much knowledge about the world, its people, and Canadian history and politics as any Canadian of his generation.
The same night that Time broke the story that Trudeau wore brownface in 2001 at an “Arabian Nights” school event in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he was a teacher, Trudeau, who is currently running for reelection, addressed reporters between campaign stops. He admitted that he was the man in the photograph, and, when asked by a reporter if this was an isolated incident, Trudeau admitted a second incident: “When I was in high school I dressed up at a talent show and sang ‘Day-O’ – with make-up on.”
As journalists have since noted, “Day-O” is a Jamaican folk song that the Jamaican-American singer and actor Harry Belafonte released and popularized in 1956. “Day-O” is not just any song. With “Day-O,” Belafonte introduced Americans to calypso, a genre of Afro-Caribbean music. Although American folk music began experiencing a revival in the mid-1950s, Caribbean folk songs had not yet crossed over into the American musical mainstream. In addition, Belafonte performed “Day-O” at a time when African Americans battled segregation and discrimination at home. And Belafonte was and is not just any singer. When he released “Day-O,” Belafonte was one of the few black stars in Hollywood. He went on to support the civil rights movement financially, help organize the 1963 March on Washington, and serve as one of Dr. Martin Luther King’s closest confidants. Trudeau’s decision to don blackface to sing “Day-O,” of all songs, as Belafonte, of all people, updated the racist — and by then taboo — practice of blackface minstrelsy to include and denigrate a civil rights icon.
On September 19, the day after Time’s story and Trudeau’s hastily organized press conference (in which he used the term “make-up” rather than “blackface”), media outlets published a photograph of Trudeau in that high school performance. In addition, Canada’s Global News uncovered a video of Trudeau – on a separate occasion – wearing blackface a third time. In the video, Trudeau hams for the camera while wearing dark make-up on his face, neck, arms, and legs.
At a second press conference later that day, a contrite Trudeau sounded a very different tune. He reversed his verbiage from the previous evening – correcting a reporter who used the term “make-up,” insisting, “it was blackface.” Trudeau also admitted that he had declined to reveal these incidents to fellow-Liberal Party leaders because he was “embarrassed”; he had remained silent even as stories populated Canadian and international media about blackface backlash in Canada (in 2014 in Montreal and at Brock University) and, most recently, earlier in 2019 in the United States. And he acknowledged his “layers of privilege” that prevented him from seeing, at the time, the racism implicit in donning blackface. Gone were the defensiveness, the indignance, and the tight smiles of Wednesday night, replaced by earnestness, self-reflection, and self-criticism.
And yet. Trudeau dodged a question about whether his father knew about his blackface performance as a high school student. He also offered a jaw-dropping answer to a question about whether there were other incidents, saying he was “wary of being definitive about this because the recent pictures that came out, I had not remembered.” Trudeau thus could not state unequivocally that there were no other instances in which he wore blackface.
But the most consequential thing that Canadians learned from the press conference is that Trudeau does not plan to resign. For those who have watched the Liberal Party dig up old social media posts to disqualify Conservative Party candidates and drop one of its own candidates over an anti-Semitic comment, this reeks of hypocrisy. While Conservatives charge Trudeau with selectively applying different rules to himself, Liberal support has remained relatively stable, with people of color defending Trudeau and downplaying the brownface incident. Recent polls suggest that after an initial shock, Canadian voters appear “to be showing some receptivity to Justin Trudeau’s apology and recognition that there are many other issues of importance to them.”
Resolute Trudeau supporters’ reactions fall into two broad camps. Many who argue that Trudeau remains the best person to lead Canada point to the Conservatives and their leader Andrew Scheer, who made homophobic comments as recently as 2005 and whose campaign manager has ties to a far-right Islamophobic media outlet. Although Scheer is Trudeau’s chief rival in this election, left-of-center Canadian voters have the choice to vote for two other national parties, the Green Party, led by Elizabeth May, and the New Democratic Party, led by Jagmeet Singh. And, as one pollster recently noted, disillusioned Trudeau supporters are not likely to vote for the Conservatives. According to a research firm cited by Reuters, “Almost none of the soft Liberal support is interested in tipping to the Conservatives. Any Liberal scandal doesn’t significantly increase Conservative support, but would go to the NDP or Greens.” In recent years, the NDP has shown that it is a viable, national party, winning 103 of 308 ridings (electoral districts) in 2011 and serving as the official opposition in Parliament from 2011 to 2015. The point here is not that the Greens or NDP have a realistic chance of forming a majority government, but that if Justin Trudeau won’t resign, Canadian voters do have other choices in their ridings when they cast their votes on October 21. Canada’s multi-party system thus invalidates arguments that a vote against Trudeau will necessarily usher in an era of Conservative rule — unlike the party system in the United States, where no viable third party exists and therefore a vote against one party necessarily helps the other party.
This brings us to the second argument advanced by some Canadians – that Canada is not the United States, does not have the same history of racism, and thus does not have the same connections to the history of blackface. One of the men photographed with Trudeau at the 2001 event went so far as to declare Trudeau’s brownface “definitely not a racist act,” adding that the “Arabian Nights” gala “was a good party, we had fun.”
Canada, of course, does differ from the United States when it comes to race. The absence of chattel slavery and a plantation economy in the nineteenth century means that Canada does not have a large population descended from enslaved people. With the resulting differences in demographics from the United States, race relations in Canada have not, as a rule, mirrored those in the US. Canadian demographics also differ from the United States in two other ways – the absence of a large Latinx community and the relatively larger presence of indigenous people. Canadians who pride themselves on coming to terms with their country’s mistreatment of Indigenous Canadians can point to to Trudeau’s leadership, as prime minister, on reconciliation with Canada’s First Nations.
However, the relatively small number of Black people in Canada, the absence of chattel slavery in Canadian history, and the progress the federal government has made in repairing its relationship with Indigenous people do not absolve Canada or its prime minister of racism towards people of color.
First, Canada had slavery, too. The historian Afua Cooper documents the story of a slave named Angélique who was found guilty of starting a fire in Montreal before being tortured and killed in 1734. Acknowledging this fact doesn’t equate the relatively limited incidence of slavery in Canada with the institutionalized slavery of the plantation-based, nineteenth-century, southern US economy, but it does suggest that Canada had a more complex relationship with slavery and its legacies than many Canadians realize.
Second, blackface was a demeaning, dehumanizing, racist part of popular culture that transcended the United States, where it began in the 1830s, and was popular in Canada in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the historian Rhae Lynn Barnes explains, blackface minstrelsy caricatured African Americans, reinforcing the color line between African Americans and the white audience members who laughed as white actors performed “exaggerated African inspired plantation dances” and “dialect songs” in blackface. Minstrelsy also brought songs like “Oh! Susanna” to American audiences. As Barnes explains in this interview with Democracy Now, “Oh! Susanna,” written by American minstrel song composer Stephen Foster, tells the story of “an African American slave who is separated from his family forcibly in the internal slave market, desperately trying to get back to his family.” Blackface minstrelsy was not confined to the United States. As Ryerson University Professor Cheryl Thompson has written, “American and British minstrel acts… performed on stages in western, central, and eastern Canada” as early as the 1850s. Prestigious Toronto theaters hosted blackface performances – which were attended by “the city’s Anglo elite” – from the late 1800s through the 1950s. The French Canadian composer Calixa Lavallée, who wrote the Canadian national anthem “O Canada,” regularly wore blackface to perform minstrelsy.
Third, while Canada has historically claimed a smaller proportion of black citizens than the United States, according to the 2011 census, 19.1% of Canadians identify themselves as members of visible minority groups (people of color). The three largest visible minority groups are South Asian, Chinese, and Black. South Asians – people from such countries as India, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka – constitute 4.8% of the Canadian population, while Black people constitute 2.9% of the total population. These statistics underline the severity of Trudeau’s dabbling in blackface and brownface. Moreover, in 2001, when Trudeau attended a Vancouver school gala in brownface, South Asian people constituted 8% of the population of Vancouver. The future prime minister’s use of brownface was not an anomalous throwback to an antiquated practice that could only hurt or demean people from another country with a more troubling history of racism. Rather, Trudeau’s use of brownface was an insult to people who constituted a relatively large minority within Canada, and within the city where Trudeau, the son of Canada’s most admired prime minister, lived a life of uncommon privilege in 2001.
Trudeau’s history of wearing brown- and blackface would be obscene for any Canadian politician. The fact that Trudeau wore blackface not once but thrice makes it worse, as does the fact that Trudeau was a well-educated, privileged man who should have known better, especially when he wore blackface in Vancouver at age 29. But what makes this story even more difficult to grapple with is that Trudeau was not part of a generation in which this was common. Blackface went from being a widely practiced form of popular culture in North America in the 1950s to an unacceptable, recognized-as-racist relic by the 1980s and 1990s, when Trudeau wore blackface as a teenager and young adult.
There is no excuse for any Canadian to have worn blackface as an adult at any point in the last forty years. The decision to wear blackface calls into question Justin Trudeau’s values and judgement and the decision not to disclose this personal history also calls into question Trudeau’s ethics as a leader. Canadian voters who like Trudeau because they pride themselves on their progressive politics need to rethink their support for a leader and party that appear unable to elevate principle over short-term electoral fortunes.
For scholarly examinations of Harry Belafonte’s activism, see film historian Steven J. Ross’s Hollywood Left and Right: How Stars Shaped American Politics, and historian Emilie Raymond’s Stars for Freedom: Hollywood, Black Celebrities, and the Civil Rights Movement.
Canadian historian John English has written a two-volume biography of Pierre Trudeau: Citizen of the World: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau Volume One: 1919-1968 and Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968-2000.
Historian Rhae Lynn Barnes has written about the history of blackface on U.S. History Scene (including this piece on teaching the history of blackface and this piece on the birth of blackface minstrelsy) and in the Washington Post. She is the author of the forthcoming book Darkology: When the American Dream Wore Blackface.
For more on blackface in Canada, see communications scholar Cheryl Thompson’s article, “The complicated history of Canadian blackface.” Recent articles exploring blackface in Canada in light of the Trudeau revelations include reporter Mark Gollom’s article “Why wearing blackface or brownface is considered ‘reprehensible’” on CBC.ca, and McGill education professor Philip S. S. Howard’s “The problem with blackface” on the Conversation.