Racism and sensitivity in Canada
Despite Canada’s current reputation as a multicultural country, the acceptance and celebration of racial diversity is not always a reality among Canadian society as racist attitudes and practices still exist. One of the more recent examples is evidenced by our prime minister, Justin Trudeau.
Last week, days into the 2019 Federal Election campaign, a political scandal emerged after two pictures and one video became publicized showing Trudeau appearing in black/brown face. While Trudeau quickly apologized, many individuals, including his political opponents, have expressed their anger, shock and confusion. Some have even questioned his current stance on multiculturalism.
I have given this situation lots of thought since I first heard about it and to be honest, I still have mixed views. I do believe that it has brought a significant amount of attention toward racism, one of Canada’s major – but unfortunately frequently ignored – societal issues.
While I am not a supporter of Trudeau, or the liberal ideology, I feel that it is somewhat unfair for him to be so harshly criticized for his past wrongdoings for two reasons. Firstly, it is not clear that these instances were done with harsh intent that the former black/brown face practice was.
For example, the first instance made public is a picture from 2001 with Trudeau in blackface with his arms around two Sikh men at an Arabian Nights themed gala at West Point Grey Academy, a private high school in B.C. where he taught. Although Trudeau did dress up in a racialized way, he did not do so to mock, insult, or criticize individuals of a black, or brown skin tone, nor was that the intent of the event either.
According to representatives from the school (as told by Global News), this Arabian themed gala night was put on by a group of parent volunteers representing a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds with the intention of being “celebratory and respectable,” rather than offensive.
Similarly, the second instance is a photo from the 1990s when Trudeau performed “Day O (the banana boat song)” by Harry Belafonte as a student in his high school talent show. In this situation, Trudeau appeared in brown face, but it is unclear whether he was trying to ridicule, or simply impersonate him, in a realistic way.
Secondly, these instances occurred long before Trudeau entered politics and became Canadian prime minister, and since then, Trudeau has changed and matured a great deal. As Trudeau stated (to Dawn Friesen from Global National, as recorded in an online Global News article) “I’m a very different person now than I was back then.” Trudeau emphasized that his father’s death significantly impacted his life, since afterward he went back to school and became more aware of the issues affecting Canadians.
Additionally, Trudeau also stated (as indicated on an online Global News article),”we’ve all done things we are unhappy with and things that we learned from.” I strongly agree because I doubt there’s a single person who has not done something in their past that they regret and wish they could go back and change. However, it is these mistakes that usually teach a lesson and force an individual to change for the better.
While Trudeau acted poorly in the past, it is clear that he made an effort to improve and therefore, instead of being judged and criticized based on his previous actions, maybe he should be perceived based on how he acts and conducts himself in the present.
However, Trudeau did act wrongly and extremely carelessly by dressing up in a racialized way, especially considering Canada’s history in how many individuals from various ethnic backgrounds face racial prejudice and discrimination in their everyday lives. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, the offensive social practice and popular entertainment form, blackface, existed in Canada, which involved white individuals darkening their skin and acting in ways intended to mock, insult, and ridicule people of African descent.
Brownface was also done with a similar intent, but was based on exoticism. As a result, I can understand how his previous actions can be viewed as offensive and hurtful, since anytime someone dresses up in black/brown face, individuals from these ethnic backgrounds are reminded of this painful former racist practice, as well as their own experiences of racism.
Although I understand that Trudeau was embarrassed by his previous actions, I do believe that he should have handled the situation better and more appropriately by being honest and upfront when the first photo surfaced, rather than lying and saying this was the only black/brown face incident from his past, especially when two other images surfaced in the following 12 hours.
Despite the decrease in Trudeau’s political support and the damage to his credibility that his former actions have caused, he has not stated any plans to resign from politics or step down as the leader of the Liberal party. Instead, he has given an apology speech expressing that his former black/ brown face actions “(are) something (he) deeply, deeply regrets,” (as mentioned in an online Global News article) and his desire to do more to prevent racial discrimination within Canada.
Overall, this situation has demonstrated that ethnicity is an extremely sensitive, but important subject matter within Canadian society, which people need to understand, consider and ultimately respect. As NDP leader, Jagmeet Singh, stated, (as referenced in a Global News article) “racism in Canada has been ignored for too long . . . It’s a lived experience and therefore politicians need to stop avoiding this subject when it is ‘politically beneficial.’”
Moving forward, I encourage everyone to approach matters of ethnicity with respect and consideration and sincerely hope that the outcome of the upcoming federal election produces a prime minister who upholds this same attitude in their political and personal life.