Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau begged forgiveness Wednesday night after a photo emerged of him in “brownface” makeup at a 2001 costume party.
Time magazine published the photo earlier Wednesday, saying it was taken from the yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, a private high school in British Columbia where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. Trudeau, then 29, is seen wearing a turban and robe, with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.
Trudeau, who launched his reelection campaign a week ago, said he would not resign, but that he should have known better. While he did not consider the costumes racist at the time, society now knows better, he said.
“I’m pissed off at myself, I’m disappointed in myself,” Trudeau told reporters traveling with him on his campaign plane. “I’m going to ask Canadians to forgive me for what I did. I shouldn’t have done that. I take responsibility for it. It was a dumb thing to do.”
The Canadian premier said the offending photo — in which his arms are wrapped around a woman he described as “a close friend” — was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an “Arabian Nights” theme that year. He explained that he was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.”
Trudeau, 47, also acknowledged it was not the first time he had painted his face. He said he previously performed a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O),” a Jamaican folk song, during a talent show.
Reporter: "Do you want to tell Canadians about any other instances where you are concerned that you were racist?"
Trudeau: "I've always — and you'll know this — been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate." pic.twitter.com/zFrW363cBE
— ishmael (@iD4RO) September 19, 2019
On Thursday, a photo of that moment surfaced. It shows Trudeau appearing in a talent show in “blackface” and an afro wig during his high school years at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf in Quebec.
Trudeau said he has always been more enthusiastic about costumes than is “sometimes appropriate.”
“These are the situations I regret deeply,” he added.
Backlash over Justin Trudeau in “blackface”
Despite the apology, Trudeau was harshly criticized from across Canada’s political spectrum.
Andrew Scheer, the Conservative leader and Trudeau’s main challenger in the Oct. 21 vote, said the photograph reflected “someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity, and someone who is not fit to govern this country.”
Elizabeth May, the leader of Canada’s Green Party, tweeted: “I am deeply shocked by the racism shown in the photograph of Justin Trudeau.
“He must apologise for the harm done and commit to learning and appreciating the requirement to model social justice leadership at all levels of government,” she said. “In this matter he has failed.”
New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is sikh and wears a turban, tweeted a message of support to anyone who has ever been bullied over their race.
American conservatives also weighed in.
Justin Trudeau wasn’t some random innocent child in these 2001 blackface photos.
He was 30-years-old and the son of one of Canada’s best known prime ministers pic.twitter.com/5qqrr5xq4i
— Harry Khachatrian (@Harry1T6) September 19, 2019
An international affair
Liberals around the world have held up Trudeau as a liberal foil to President Donald Trump, hailing his rhetoric and policies in favor of diversity and multiculturalism. His Liberal government, which relies on support from Canada’s large Middle Eastern and South Asian communities, has accepted more refugees than the United States under Trump, legalized cannabis nationwide and advocated free trade.
However, Trudeau’s critics have long accused him of hypocrisy. The “brownface” and “blackface” uproar is not the first time his wardrobe choices have been deemed cultural appropriation.
On a disastrous state trip to India in March, Trudeau was widely derided for dressing up in flashy silk and gold-embroidered outfits and pointed, red silk shoes.
— Katie Hopkins (@KTHopkins) May 25, 2018
The India trip followed the outbreak of a government-shaking political scandal in which Trudeau’s former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the criminal prosecution of a company in Quebec. Several members of Trudeau’s cabinet resigned over the affair and his poll numbers plummeted.
The controversy over Trudeau’s costumes echoes debates over racism and cultural appropriation in the United States.
In February, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam of Virginia came under fire over a photo that was published 35 years ago in his medical school yearbook. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo, which shows a man in blackface makeup standing next to someone wearing a Klan robe and hood. But he later insisted that he was actually not either of the people in the photo.
Northam has refused calls to resign and remains in office.