Justin Trudeau said he “deeply, deeply regrets” his actions Thursday, a day after photos emerged of him appearing in brownface during his time as a teacher. “Darkening your face, regardless of the context and circumstances, is always unacceptable, because of the racist history of blackface,” Trudeau told reporters Thursday afternoon in Winnipeg. “I should have understood that then.”
Trudeau said he had to take responsibility for what he did, and that he let a lot of people down. “I appreciate you calling it makeup, but it was blackface,” Trudeau said, answering a reporter’s question. “I didn’t see that from the layers of privilege that I have.”
Trudeau was asked directly whether he had been in blackface or brownface more than three times. “I shared the events that I remember,” Trudeau said, adding he was wary of being definitive on the matter after recalling two incidents Wednesday night and then a third case was revealed by Global News on Thursday morning.
He acknowledged that it’s hard to believe that he can’t remember how many times he wore blackface. Trudeau called this “personally a moment to reflect” on what white privilege has meant. “I have to recognize that I was blind to the pain that I may have caused at those times and that I am now causing to people that count on me to defend them,” Trudeau said.
Asked when he realized blackface was racist, Trudeau said he learned during his time as the MP for Papineau, representing people of all origins. Trudeau said he regrets deeply that parents across Canada had to have difficult conversations with their kids today because of his actions. My father “wouldn’t be pleased with how I behaved but perhaps taking responsibility for it was important,” Trudeau said.
Before speaking at the news conference, he spent Thursday talking to Liberal candidates and community leaders to offer his apologies, even as a video emerged showing him in yet another incident. The video posted by Global News shows a brief clip of Trudeau in blackface, wearing a white T-shirt, sticking his tongue out.
Liberal party spokesperson Zita Astravas confirmed to the Star that it was Trudeau in the video, which she said dates from the early 1990s. Trudeau was already facing wide condemnation after Time magazine published a photo showing the Liberal leader, then a teacher, wearing brownface makeup and a turban at a 2001 private school party. On Thursday, Trudeau held a mid-morning conference call with Liberal candidates left shaken by the images that, for the moment, have rocked their election hopes.
Trudeau’s campaign schedule was side-swiped Thursday as he dealt with the fallout of the images. Many of Trudeau’s visible minority candidates were standing by him on Thursday. Omar Alghabra, the incumbent Liberal in Mississauga Centre, admitted he was shocked and surprised by the revelation.
The Liberal leader called him Wednesday night as Alghabra was between houses, doorknocking for votes. It was just before the Time story broke. Trudeau did the same with other members of his caucus. He told Alghabra what was about to break, and apologized personally to Alghabra, whom he acknowledged had been among the leaders of the Liberal government’s efforts to fight stereotypes and bigotry.
The next morning, Alghabra was on a national telephone conference call that Trudeau held Thursday morning with Liberal candidates. “He offered his sincere regret and apology and how that was going to be painful and has been painful for many people,” said Alghabra. “And he pledged his commitment to engage with Canadians in conversations about this issue and continue the work that our government and we all have been doing together in combatting racism and bigotry.”
Alghabra said it was “important for people to hear it in his voice and directly from him about how remorseful he is and about how sincere he is in his apology and how committed he is in dealing with this in a constructive way.” Neither Trudeau nor his officials told candidates how to handle media inquiries or how to react to the photos, leaving them to form their own opinions.
Alghabra said he believes Trudeau was wrong, but that he has shown through the decade the two have known each other that he is not a racist. “This is not a script, this is not a plot. I think this is the right thing for the prime minister to own and apologize for what happened, but it’s also really important to recognize and acknowledge the work he’s done these last many years in dealing precisely with the issue that unfortunately this picture brings up.”
Trudeau phoned ahead of the news breaking to also apologize to Greg Fergus, the chair of a small Black parliamentary caucus made up of only Liberals, on Wednesday night. Fergus, a candidate in Hull-Aylmer, said it is “gonna be rough” for the Liberal leader, but he said he accepted Trudeau’s apology as sincere and said he thinks many Black Canadians will forgive Trudeau because he has shown by his actions he is committed to fighting racism and bigotry in Canada.
Fergus made his own round of several conference calls and reached out to Black community members. “There was a lot of confusion and hurt last night by the black community,” Fergus told reporters. But Fergus maintained that “nobody lives their life without making mistakes, when they are young or not so young but this is a man who takes to heart the need for diversity in Canada.”
“I’m certain that he’s embarrassed of that, ashamed of it. And he’s taken steps to demonstrate how he’s moved on from that, he’s woken up to the whole notion of what privilege is and he’s taken actions as prime minister when he had the opportunity to take action to provide a better place for all Canadians of diversity. I think really that’s the measure of the man.”