For many Canadians, Trudeau’s blackface photos come as ‘a shock’

AMNA NAWAZ: Canadian Prime Minister Justin
Trudeau is embroiled in scandal, after three
separate instances have emerged showing Trudeau
in blackface.
The first image surfaced overnight, and was
quickly followed by the others.
It’s become the new focus of next month’s
Canadian elections.
William Brangham now has the latest.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU, Canadian Prime Minister: This
is something that I deeply, deeply regret.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The prime minister spent
the day trying to contain the damage from
images of him in brown and black face makeup.
The controversy erupted after “TIME” magazine
published a photo of Trudeau at an Arabian
Nights-themed gala in 2001.
He was 29 at the time, and teaching at a private
His initial response came last night on his
campaign plane.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It was something that I didn’t
think was racist at the time, but now I recognize
it was something racist to do, and I am deeply
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Trudeau also admitted to
wearing blackface when he sang the Jamaican
song “Day O” at a high school talent show
in the 1990s.
And, today, the Canadian news site Global
News released video of a third instance of
Trudeau in dark makeup also from the ’90s.
Hours later, the prime minister addressed
the scandal again in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
JUSTIN TRUDEAU: It was something that minimizes
and takes advantage of a reality that I have
not had to live with, of being discriminated
against, of being marginalized, of being judged
for the color of my skin.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All of this comes just five
weeks before a general election, with the
prime minister and his ruling Liberal Party
facing a tough fight to hold their parliamentary
His main rival, and leader of the opposition
Conservatives, ripped into Trudeau last night.
ANDREW SCHEER, Leader, Conservative Party:
What Canadians saw this evening is someone
with a complete lack of judgment and integrity,
and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Today, Jagmeet Singh, son
of Sikh immigrants from India and leader of
the New Democrats, called the images of Trudeau
JAGMEET SINGH, Leader, New Democratic Party:
How do you look someone in the eye that’s
mocked the lived reality that I have lived,
but, more importantly, that so many Canadians
have lived?
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: In the past, Trudeau has
often cast himself as a champion of multiculturalism,
welcoming Syrian refugees arriving into Canada,
and surrounding himself with a diverse cabinet.
Today, a number of his liberal party followers
said they are sticking with him, but the scandal
has cast new doubt on his political future.
Also in Winnipeg today, Trudeau said he wouldn’t
rule out the existence of additional photos,
given the fact that he didn’t remember these
prior cases.
Joining me now to talk about the fallout is
Elamin Abdelmahmoud.
He is an editor at BuzzFeed News and the co-host
of “Party Lines,” a podcast about Canadian
Elamin, welcome to the “NewsHour.”
This obviously comes at a, frankly, terrible
time for the prime minister, right as this
election campaign is gearing up.
What is your sense of the fallout from all
of this?
So we are fortunate in this country to have
a much shorter campaign period, while the
U.S. is still somehow reliving the 2016 campaign.
We have about a 40-day campaign period.
And so this is about the worst time for the
prime minister to have this come out, because
we’re about eight days into it, and it will
wrap up October 21.
And so, as you can imagine, we have a saying
that’s constant that campaigns matter.
And the reason they do is because, when an
event like this happens, it can totally, completely
shift the course of the campaign.
For the past few days, the Liberals, Trudeau’s
party, has been harming this message about
affordability, about how they’re going to
help the middle-class.
Nobody is talking about that today.
And everyone’s talking about all of the comments
that he’s made about racism, his history with
being a very woke prime minister, as compared
to these photos that just came out.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: And my understanding is,
is that this also dovetails with what the
Conservatives have been trying to attack him
So, the Conservatives have been kind of trying
to deliver the message that — their campaign
slogan is that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised.
Most of that argument has been about his sort
of like taxation policies.
They say that he’s going to do one thing,
but actually doing another.
But when it comes to this case, Justin Trudeau
is probably most well known outside of this
country for all of the sort of like performances
of being a pretty woke, sort of understanding
of social justice kind of prime minister.
And so when you have a situation like this
that is just coming to light now, it kind
of gives a bit more credibility to their notion
that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised.
It’s, frankly, a shock that Trudeau himself
wouldn’t have addressed this in the intervening
years, whether when he became a member of
Parliament, when he became the leader of his
party, when he became prime minister.
He’s had plenty of time, plenty of opportunities
to just educate people on this.
And so that the way it’s coming out now, it
doesn’t look good for him.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Given the concentrated nature
of campaigns, as you describe, which, frankly,
I can say, here in America, we would love
a 40-day campaign.
ELAMIN ABDELMAHMOUD: I can imagine, yes.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: … is your sense that,
given that, that this is going to move the
needle in a substantial way against him?
ELAMIN ABDELMAHMOUD: I mean, listen, it’s
the only conversation that there is in Canadian
politics today.
And it that wasn’t that yesterday.
Before the election and up until the first
few days of the campaign period, the polls
have been reflecting a relative sort of tie
between the Liberals and the Conservatives,
with the NDP being a long, sort of distant
This kind of upends that, because, for the
next few days, we will be seeing Justin Trudeau
apologize and apologize again.
He did his second apology today.
I don’t think he’s put it to bed.
There are still a lot of questions for him
to answer.
And so, when we say campaigns matter, what
we really mean is, over just a couple of days,
how you handle a situation like this can either
give you momentum or make you stuck in a rut
that is just like that these are the only
questions that you take.
You can imagine, in a 40-day period, if he
ends up taking questions about this for five,
six days in a row, that’s a significant sort
of fraction of that campaign period.
And so this could really shift the momentum
of the campaign, but this happened yesterday.
It happened last night.
It hasn’t even been 24 hours, so it’s a little
bit too early to tell on that front.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Here in the U.S., blackface
imagery is pretty known.
It’s pretty clearly — everyone understands
that that’s racist icons.
Do the Canadians have a similar appreciation
of and history for blackface and seeing it
as racist caricatures?
ELAMIN ABDELMAHMOUD: You know, I got to tell
you, somehow, this country has kind of — this
country being Canada — we have skated with
this international sort of reputation of not
being an especially racist country, not having
that kind of deep history of racism.
But we really do.
We have really struggled with having quality
conversations about racism, about multiculturalism
in this country.
This is a moment to have those conversations,
because, yes, like, every single year, we
see stories about college students or somewhat
famous people in Canada who end up dressing
up in blackface, in brownface, and being criticized
publicly for it.
So we struggle with it the same way that the
U.S. does.
I think we don’t have the reputation that
we do.
And that’s kind of fortunate.
But we have that sort of long history here
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: The prime minister today
said that it was really — he had a hard time
seeing how racist this was through his layers
of privilege.
Is that going to work as an excuse for people?
Are — people say, OK, I can understand that,
you’re the son of a prime minister, you maybe
didn’t appreciate this, or is that not going
to fly?
ELAMIN ABDELMAHMOUD: I mean, look, the fact
of the matter is, when the when the photo
of him in the Aladdin costume came out, it
happened, he was he was 29 years old.
And you pull any 29-year-old out from the
street, and hopefully you would think they
would know better, even if the conversations
about blackface and brownface were not as
evolved in 2001 as they are now.
We have certainly come a long way as a society
in terms of talking about these issues a little
bit more.
But it’s not like he was less racist then.
And so, when he says that he’s had layers
of privilege that helped him not see that
that was the case, I believe him.
I think I take that seriously.
But, at the same time, he has a bit of a history
of talking about words like systemic discrimination
or privilege, words that are very popular
on the progressive left, but not really a
lot of history being probed on whether he
really understands what those means.
So I think this is maybe an opportunity to
have a more fulsome conversation about that
and see what that looks like.
WILLIAM BRANGHAM: All right, Elamin Abdelmahmoud,
thank you very, very much for being here.
Thank you for having me.

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