Three separate instances of Justin Trudeau wearing blackface have surfaced this week. Usually this type of scandal is reserved for Republican governors of the Southern United States, but this goes to show that Canada is not exempt from racism as some believe. These racist photos have also come to light during an election where racism and racist rhetoric is even more rampant than in previous years.
Conservative Party Leader, Andrew Scheer, has publically defended Conservative candidates that have made racist or homophobic comments in the past. The xenophobic, anti-immigrant People’s Party of Canada will be allowed into debates. And even the Green Party has had its own racism scandals, as they adopted NDP defectors in New Brunswick, who cited the NDP leader’s race as a reason to switch parties, and a Green candidate said that racism is just a distraction from environmental issues. The same day that that this story broke, CTV news released an article also suggesting that Canadians aren’t ready for someone who wears a turban to be Prime Minister.
Liberal supporters have been quick to jump to Trudeau’s defence. They present Trudeau wearing blackface as a mere youthful indiscretion. This defence completely ignores the fact that Trudeau was 29 years old in 2001, and a teacher at the school where the photo was taken. It’s also absurd to suggest that his actions would be excusable even if he was a youth. Most high school students are aware of the racist history of blackface. In fact, many young people have been militant in opposing racism. There has been mass participation of the youth in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, Idle No More, and anti-facist movements, amongst other anti-racist and anti-homophobic movements. In Quebec, thousands went out to the streets to oppose the CAQ’s racist law against religious minorities.
It is especially telling that Trudeau wore blackface at an elite private high school, with tuition fees in the tens of thousands, where this son of Canadian aristocracy taught the sons and daughters of other aristocrats to take their place as the next generation of the ruling class. This is the true face of the Canadian bourgeoisie.
There have also been claims that Trudeau’s actions since the photos were taken have shown that this incident is firmly in the past and is not a reflection of his current character. In particular, they point to Trudeau opening Canada’s doors to 25,000 refugees. It’s important to note that being a “white saviour” does not excuse racist action. But as Fightback has previously explained even this measure was a meagre political maneuver. Trudeau allowed only a miniscule fraction of refugees, given the severity of the humanitarian crisis. He simultaneously ignored the role that Canadian and allied imperialism has played in fomenting the refugee crisis by supporting wars and coups in the Middle East and Latin America. And since then, Trudeau’s policies regarding refugees have been absolutely two-faced. Instead of cancelling the “Safe Third Country” agreement with Trump’s USA, Trudeau has in fact strengthened this racist policy. Even by the government’s own figures this policy change will put thousands of refugee families back in harm’s way. Trudeau is not a hero in the refugee crisis; he has had a hand in perpetuating the crisis itself.
The extreme hypocrisy of the Liberal regime is seen by the sale of $15 billion of arms to the oppressive women-hating regime of Saudi Arabia that is bombing the people of Yemen into starvation. Canada is the second largest seller of arms to the Kingdom, only surpassed by Trump’s USA. At home Trudeau speaks out of both sides of his mouth. On the one side he talks about reconciliation with First Nations, but on the other side he spends more money on a pipeline that violates Indigenous sovereignty than the total dollar figure it would cost to end the tainted water crisis on reserves. Canadian liberalism stands exposed.
Blackface has always been racist
Trudeau’s own apology also diminished the racist effect of his actions. First he stated that he “wore makeup”, instead of the more understood and appropriate term “blackface”. Trudeau said, “I should’ve known better”, and continued, “it was something I didn’t think was racist at the time.” But it’s hard to understand this line of reasoning. Trudeau was a drama teacher. The very origin of blackface comes from the history of theatre. Racist minstrel shows began in the decades leading up to the Civil War in the US. There is no way that Trudeau would have been unaware of its history.
And it was not a case of “it was just a different time when this was acceptable”; from the beginning abolitionists saw it for the racist show it was. Blackface was recognized as a vehicle to promote stereotypes that plantation owners and politicians advanced to justify slavery. Frederick Douglass decried blackface performers as, “the filthy scum of white society, who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature, in which to make money, and pander to the corrupt taste of their white fellow citizens.”
Minstrel shows were a longstanding symbol of racism. The famous segregation laws of the Reconstruction South were even referred to as Jim Crow laws. The phrase “Jim Crow laws” originates from a recurring character in the racist shows of the same name, a caricature of blacks performed by white actors in minstrel shows. The character was so popular that it was widely used as a pejorative for blacks across English-speaking North America.
The idea that in 2001, nearly 175 years after the first minstrel shows and years of slavery and segregation, Trudeau could be ignorant of these facts is mind boggling. This makes his claim that he didn’t know it was racist an absurdity. The only other conclusion is that he is the most ignorant politician on earth devoid of basic grade school history.
Andrew Scheer came out against Trudeau’s photos, calling them an act of “open mockery and racism”. Scheer has no legs to stand on here. There’s no doubt that Trudeau’s actions are a mockery of racialized people and are racist. But just two days prior to Trudeau’s photos being revealed Scheer was asked if he would apologize for comments in the past, in which he compared same-sex marriage to a dog, which he adamantly refused to do.
Earlier that same day, Scheer publicly defended his candidates who had made racist and homophobic comments in the past, as long as those candidates apologized. For Scheer, racist actions and comments in the past don’t disqualify candidates for the Conservative party, yet he also wants to act like he gets to hold the moral high ground on Trudeau? Scheer has no redemption here. The Conservative party has fanned the flames of racism and hate for decades, with their “barbaric cultural practices” hotline, their anti-immigrant rhetoric, islamophobic hysteria. Scheer has his own racist comments and candidates to deal with.
NDP needs to come out with bold anti-racist policies
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has come forward with a heart-warming response to the racist photos and has shared stories of personal experiences which will resonate with those who face racism. But it is not enough to say nice things. The working class and youth are beginning to mobilize against racism. They are looking for a party that can lead the fight against racism. But that means taking on the capitalist system that is the root of this oppression.
While Singh has talked about some positive reforms such as banning carding, nothing in his platform speaks to the core issue of the systemic origin of racism, which is the need of capitalism to divide the working class and provide an underclass of cheap super-exploited labour. While carding is an openly racist policy, it is only the tip of the iceberg of racist police brutality. In response to the so-called secularism bill in Quebec, NDP MPs have only responded that they disagree with the bill but that they respect the Constitution and the “notwithstanding” clause. This is a weak response to an islamophobic and racist bill, and we should have no respect for the colonial Canadian Constitution or the notwithstanding clause. The point is not to fight racism in the capitalist courts, it must be fought on the streets and in the workplaces. If a racist law is normalized in any part of the world it is a threat to workers and oppressed internationally. It is vital that the workers’ movement in Canada and internationally unite with and support those who are fighting the religious symbols law in Quebec, otherwise similar legislation will be used to divide and rule in every country.
The NDP needs to adopt consistent policies that oppose racism, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. The NDP could cut across all the racist parties by uniting the working class against racism. They should fight for good jobs and fair wages for all, combined with coming out openly against all immigration and asylum controls. End the “Safe Third Country” agreement and cancel all arms shipments to oppressive regimes like Saudi Arabia. Socialist policies that provide good housing, union work, free education, and full employment will undercut the shortages and division that the racists exploit to set worker against worker.
A socialist policy will favour not only immigrants and racial minorities, but all workers. Such a program would mobilize the workers and youth already fighting racism with workers around the world into a movement that would boldly confront the racist Liberals and Tories.
No to the racist Liberals!
No to the racist Tories!
Workers unite to fight racism!