On Sep. 18, photos surfaced of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing brownface, followed by the news of two more instances in blackface. Trudeau, the leader of the Liberal Party, immediately apologized for his past actions, stating he did not consider them racist at the time but should have known better. These photographs come at a crucial point for Trudeau and the Liberal Party of Canada, as they are currently less than one month away from Parliamentary elections.
Considering Trudeau has portrayed himself and his Parliament as a beacon of progressive politics, these harmful acts exhibit a profound level of hypocrisy. This is not limited to past offenses but shows itself in many of his behaviors and policies during his time as prime minister. Though he has championed himself as enlightened, the privileges he holds as a wealthy, white man make him blind to the truly damaging effects of his transgressions. If re-elected this fall, Trudeau has a responsibility to support policies and focus on communities he has previously neglected. In order to uphold his own and his country’s reputation as progressive leaders, he must demonstrate his commitment to equality through actions, not just through words.
To many, revelations about Trudeau’s racist past have shaken an idealized view of the prime minister. However, these are not the only instances in which he has contradicted his purported ideals. He has long held a contentious relationship with Canada’s indigenous persons, demonstrated by his approval of the controversial Trans Mountain pipeline expansion that threatens native lands. Trudeau has also been criticized for sarcastic comments he made toward an indigenous activist advocating for mercury poisoning compensation. Beyond his poor track record with Canada’s First Nations population, Trudeau has faced accusations of violating ethics laws by trying to pressure his former justice minister and Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to drop charges against a company based in Quebec. As Canada’s first Indigenous Justice Minister, Wilson-Raybould’s resignation was viewed as a setback in the reconciliation process by many Indigenous leaders. The damages of Trudeau’s ignorance are not limited to Canada; during an official visit to India in February 2018, Trudeau and his family drew criticism for overdoing their traditional attire, entering “costume territory” and appropriating Indian culture. These offenses while in office indicate his past racist behaviors are part of a larger pattern of his privilege and ignorance.
World leaders must be held to the ideals they promote, and Trudeau is no exception. It’s true that Trudeau has taken some actions reflective of his liberal ideals while in office. Upon entering office in 2015, he named Canada’s first gender-balanced cabinet. He has been a vocal advocate for refugees, though amid recent pressures from Canada’s right wing, he has supported a far less welcoming policy regarding asylum seekers at the U.S.-Canada border. Under his leadership, his parliament has made a concerted effort to fix the environmental laws implemented by the previous Conservative administration. However, in order to continue promoting himself as a forward-looking frontrunner, he must adhere to these ideals consistently in his policies and his personal life. A mere image of progressiveness is not enough; this progressiveness must be reflected in Trudeau’s actions. Like any leader, he has a duty to stick to his promises.
As students at an elite university, we are being primed to become leaders in our respective fields. For many, this includes politics and business. Trudeau’s racist wrongdoings demonstrate that we have a responsibility to thoroughly educate ourselves on other cultures and communities. It is imperative to acknowledge how our privilege and actions impact others. Otherwise, we are contributing further harm to our environment as well as depriving ourselves of a well-rounded education. As future members of the workforce, we must understand the histories of harm and violence inflicted upon other cultures. This includes understanding why blackface still causes damage. Progress cannot be made when we don’t do the necessary work of confronting our biases and the impact of our privilege.
However, broadening cultural understanding and appreciation does not mean adopting cultures as our own. Even when well-intentioned, the racist fashions of appropriation further violate communities. Cultural appropriation erases histories, distorts diversity and promotes stereotypes. It is the very mistake Trudeau made when he intentionally chose to wear brownface and blackface. However, this does not mean Trudeau should be immediately dismissed. Instead, his actions can serve as a reminder for self-reflection and change. Especially as students, we should embrace expanding diversity and inclusivity, not in fear of being caught but because of our inherent eagerness to learn.
It is clearly disheartening when a beloved politician’s racist past is revealed. Justin Trudeau has been commonly viewed as a champion of progressivism, but with each racist act our trust in him continues to falter. Trudeau faces a long road of re-earning respect and trust, especially from Canadians. Yet, it is important we do not demonize Trudeau, but rather take time to reflect and educate ourselves. We cannot change Trudeau’s past, but we can learn from him and strive for improvement.