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Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau Rebounds from Racial Scandal in Time for Federal Elections

Rachel Warner November 13, 2019

Image Source: Cole Burston/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Canada’s 2015 federal election resulted in a Liberal majority government led by progressive Justin Trudeau. Throughout his political career leading up to September of 2019, Trudeau in the position of prime minister has taken many steps towards branding his progressive government as one built on inclusivity and social justice. Trudeau apologized on behalf of the Canadian government, to both the indigenous people in the provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador for the boarding school system that forcefully tried to assimilate indigenous children and to the LGBT community for systemic discrimination. Further policy actions such as legalizing marijuana in October 2018 and a carbon tax have raised Canada’s image internationally and made his arguably one of the most successful progressive governments. 

Then, in mid-September of 2019, several photos of Trudeau in brownface and blackface came to light not long after his re-election campaign began. One photo dated 2001 shows PM Trudeau with dark skin makeup for an “Arabian Nights” gala during his time teaching at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, British Columbia. The second photo of Trudeau from his high school years shows him with dark makeup and an afro wig singing African American musician and activist Harry Belafonte’s song “Day-O”. A day later, a picture from a video emerged that displayed Trudeau with black makeup covering his face and arms. 

Following the release of the photos, Trudeau responded: “I regret it deeply. I’m deeply sorry I did that. I should have known better, but I didn’t and I did that. I shouldn’t have done that.” 

According to The Guardian, Trudeau has faced separate allegations of political interference by his aides who pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, former attorney general and highest-ranking indigenous official, to settle with SNC-Lavalin. The Canadian engineering company was involved in a corruption scandal that broke in 2015. The company stood accused of bribing the former dictator of Libya Muammar Gaddafi and of defrauding the Libyan government of money tied to construction projects from 2001 to 2011. 

With federal elections on October 21, many wondered what Canadians would make of Trudeau in light of these missteps? Journalist Christie Blatchford of the National Post has expressed her view of Trudeau’s hypocrisy on the matter. Leader of the opposition Conservative Party and Trudeau’s election competitor Andrew Scheer, remarked, “What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a total lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country” according to BBC News. On the other hand, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia Max Cameron wrote, “He didn’t try to diminish it or deny that it was racist.” He later added, “He clearly gets that this is a problem. But there’s a question in my mind, ‘Is this something you can come back from?’ He embodies white privilege and should have known better.” 

Meanwhile, opinion surveys from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation have placed Trudeau’s approval ratings at an all-time low. Neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are polling high enough to win a seat majority with both pollings just above 30%. Overall, Trudeau’s image as a beacon of progressivism has taken a hit among voters. Given his portrayal as a liberal figure to counter American President Trump, these blows to Trudeau’s re-election campaign could have for many supporters.

The Liberal party managed a plurality win of 157 seats out of 338 in the House of Commons. Though still a win for Trudeau, the Liberals lost their outright majority so future policy will depend on smaller parties, like the two left-wing New Democratic Party and the Green Party, to join in initiatives such as those on climate change.  

Though still a victory for Trudeau and his progressive government, as of October 24th Trudeau has decided to lead a minority favor government instead of forming a coalition. On November 20th Prime Minister Trudeau will unveil his new Cabinet, and with it, his body of advisors that will help determine the policies and future priorities of Canada.