‘A Dumb Thing to Do’: Trudeau Apologizes for Brownface

September 18, 2019 Updated: September 19, 2019

TORONTO—Canadian leader Justin Trudeau’s campaign for national elections was hit Wednesday by the publication of a yearbook photo showing him in brownface makeup at a costume party in 2001. The prime minister apologized and said “it was a dumb thing to do.”

Time magazine posted the photo, which it says was published in the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics. It depicts Trudeau wearing a turban and robe, with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his face and hands painted brown, poses with others during an "Arabian Nights" party
Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, with his face and hands painted brown, poses with others during an “Arabian Nights” party when he was a 29-year-old teacher at the West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, Canada, in this photo published in the academy’s 2000-2001 yearbook. This image, published in The View yearbook, was obtained by Time. (Reuters)

Trudeau, who launched his reelection campaign exactly one week ago, said he should have known better.

“I’m pissed off at myself, I’m disappointed in myself,” Trudeau told reporters traveling with him on his campaign plane.

Canada Trudeau Brownface Photo
Canadian Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau makes a statement in regards to a photo coming to light of himself from 2001, wearing “brownface,” during a scrum on his campaign plane in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

The Canadian prime minister is but the latest politician to face scrutiny over racially insensitive photos and actions from their younger days. Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam faced intense pressure to resign after a racist picture surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page. He denied being in the picture but admitted to wearing blackface as a young man while portraying Michael Jackson at a dance party in the 1980s.

Trudeau said the photo of him was taken at the school’s annual dinner which had an “Arabian Nights” theme that year. Trudeau was dressed as a character from “Aladdin.”

The prime minister said it was not the first time he has worn makeup before, saying he wore makeup while performing a version of the Harry Belafonte song, “Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” during a talent show.

“I should have known better then but I didn’t, and I am deeply sorry for it,” Trudeau said. “I’m going to ask Canadians to forgive me what I did. I shouldn’t have done that. I take responsibility for it. It was a dumb thing to do.”

Trudeau said he’s always been more enthusiastic about costumes than is “sometimes appropriate.”

“These are the situations I regret deeply,” he added.

The photo’s publication could spell more trouble for Trudeau, who polls say is facing a serious challenge from Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.

Trudeau has been admired by liberals around the world for his progressive policies in the Trump era, with Canada accepting more refugees than the United States. His Liberal government has also strongly advocated free trade.

But the 47-year-old was already vulnerable following one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when Trudeau’s former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the criminal prosecution of a company in Quebec. Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs.

Trudeau said he would have a conversation with his kids in the morning about taking responsibility.

By Rob Gillies

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