HALIFAX — A yearbook photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — his face and hands blackened by makeup — at a 2001 costume party detonated Wednesday on the federal campaign trail, instantly tarnishing the Liberal leader’s bona fides as a champion of inclusivity and tolerance and stopping the party’s re-election momentum squarely in its tracks.
Time magazine has posted the photo, which it says was published in the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver, B.C., where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics.
The photo depicts Trudeau, who was attending an Arabian Nights-themed gala event, wearing an elaborate turban and robe, his face, hands and neck blackened by makeup.
“It was a dumb thing to do,” the prime minister said during an emergency news conference on board the Liberal campaign plane before taking off for Winnipeg.
“I’m disappointed in myself, I’m pissed off at myself for having done it. I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did it, and I apologize for it.”
Asked whether it was the only such instance, Trudeau admitted that during a high school talent show, he wore makeup while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O), although he didn’t explicitly say the makeup was dark.
He also said he’s been calling friends and colleagues to apologize personally for the photo, adding he expects to be making more such calls Thursday.
“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’m deeply sorry,” he said.
“I have worked all my life to try and create opportunities for people, to fight against racism and intolerance, and I can just stand here and say that I made a mistake when I was younger, and I wish I hadn’t.”
The picture depicts the now-Liberal leader alongside four young women — his hands draped over one of them — in what appear to be cocktail dresses, none dressed as elaborately as Trudeau. The report describes the photo as having been the subject of gossip within the West Point Grey community.
Word of the photo ripped through the Liberal campaign bus like wildfire when the story broke, instantly changing what had been a convivial end-of-day mood. Staff members suddenly began talking frantically on their cellphones as reporters urgently called their newsrooms before snapping open their laptops.
So-called “blackface” images have been a frequent source of controversy in recent years, predominantly in the U.S., where last year a number of prominent state politicians were forced to apologize for similar yearbook images that surfaced publicly.
But the image surely represents a crisis moment for Trudeau, whose political brand as Liberal leader and prime minister has been forged by themes of tolerance, inclusivity and racial harmony.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was taking part in a town hall meeting when the news broke, said it’s becoming clear Trudeau’s public persona may not be an accurate reflection of who he is.
“I think he needs to answer for it. I think he’s got to answer the question why he did that and what does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the colour of their skin, face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their life,” Singh said.
“Who is the real Mr. Trudeau? Is it the one behind closed doors, the one when the cameras are turned off that no one sees?” Singh asked.