OTTAWA — Jagmeet Singh challenged Canadians Thursday to try to see through his eyes the implications of a shocking trio of images catching Justin Trudeau in racist acts.
This is a moment full of both political and personal resonance for the NDP leader, whose presence in the campaign as the visible-minority leader of a major party is a first for Canada.
Singh said he doesn’t know how he’ll be able to look Trudeau in the eye at all, after seeing the decades-old photos and videos of the prime minister and Liberal leader with his face darkened by makeup on three separate occasions.
“Imagine what that would feel like if you’ve gone through pain in your life, if you’ve been treated differently, if you’ve faced insults, if you’ve faced physical violence because of the way you look, if you’ve been treated differently by the police, if you’ve faced systemic barriers,” Singh said at an event in Hamilton, Ont.
“And then to see the prime minister making light of that. How would someone feel living in this country? I can tell you that it hurts.”
Even Singh’s rivals acknowledged that perhaps he stands alone among them as the person who can best address the significance of what Trudeau did — both as a teenager and as an adult, including as a teacher at a Vancouver private school.
“I think I might take this opportunity to just highlight the response from Jagmeet Singh,” Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said at an event in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.
“I thought he showed genuine concern and as someone who has obviously been victim of these types of things in a way I never have. I think he responded with a lot of class and dignity and obviously he was speaking on behalf of so many Canadians who have been victims of racist acts or mockery like that.”
The federal campaign had been brought to a screeching halt Wednesday evening when an 18-year-old photo of Trudeau, dressed in an Aladdin costume with his hands and face darkened, was published by Time magazine. He had dressed up for a theme gala at the private school where he taught.
He profusely apologized for having indulged in what he acknowledged was a racist act of wearing brownface, and confessed to another: wearing makeup during a high-school talent show, while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s “Banana Boat Song (Day-O).”
Then Thursday morning, Global News published a video of a young Trudeau in blackface, showing him sticking out his tongue for the camera and raising his arms over his head, part of a montage of people apparently goofing around in a setting that’s hard to discern.
A Liberal spokesperson confirmed its authenticity and said it was filmed in the early 1990s, when he was in his early 20s.
Scheer suggested Thursday morning his campaign had been aware of the video and decided to pass it along to a media outlet.
Trudeau was to hold a media event later Thursday in Winnipeg. He conceded Wednesday night that it will take some doing to restore his image as a champion of diversity and tolerance.
“I’m asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did,” he said during an emergency news conference aboard the Liberal campaign plane before taking off from Halifax for Winnipeg.
“I shouldn’t have done that. It was a dumb thing to do. I’m disappointed in myself. I’m pissed off at myself for having done it. I apologize for it.”
He added that he didn’t consider it a racist action at the time, “but now we know better. This is something unacceptable and it is racist.”
Singh said while Trudeau might apologize, it highlights a pattern.
He pointed to an incident in the spring when people advocating for better treatment for an Ontario First Nation struggling with mercury poisoning protested at a private Liberal fundraiser. During the event, a protester was escorted out of the room. Trudeau thanked her for her “donation.”
“I think there will be an impact on people’s decisions in this campaign in relation to what Mr. Trudeau has shown himself to be in public and now what we have seen in his private life,” Singh said.
“I think it shows that there is a difference there and a lot of legitimate questions coming forward because of that.”