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For many Canadians, Trudeau’s blackface photos come as ‘a shock’

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is mired in scandal since three separate images emerged showing him in blackface. The controversial instances, for which Trudeau apologized Thursday, have quickly dominated the Canadian election period. William Brangham reports and talks to BuzzFeed’s Elamin Abdelmahmoud about why the news is so shocking and how it might affect Trudeau's campaign.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embroiled in scandal, after three separate instances have emerged showing Trudeau in blackface.

    The first image surfaced overnight, and was quickly followed by the others. It's become the new focus of next month's Canadian elections.

    William Brangham now has the latest.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

    This is something that I deeply, deeply regret.

  • William Brangham:

    The prime minister spent the day trying to contain the damage from images of him in brown and black face makeup.

    The controversy erupted after "TIME" magazine published a photo of Trudeau at an Arabian Nights-themed gala in 2001. He was 29 at the time, and teaching at a private school. His initial response came last night on his campaign plane.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

    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 am deeply sorry.

  • William Brangham:

    Trudeau also admitted to wearing blackface when he sang the Jamaican song "Day O" at a high school talent show in the 1990s.

    And, today, the Canadian news site Global News released video of a third instance of Trudeau in dark makeup also from the '90s. Hours later, the prime minister addressed the scandal again in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

  • Prime Minister Justin Trudeau:

    It was something that minimizes and takes advantage of a reality that I have not had to live with, of being discriminated against, of being marginalized, of being judged for the color of my skin.

  • William Brangham:

    All of this comes just five weeks before a general election, with the prime minister and his ruling Liberal Party facing a tough fight to hold their parliamentary majority.

    His main rival, and leader of the opposition Conservatives, ripped into Trudeau last night.

  • Andrew Scheer:

    What Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity, and someone who's not fit to govern this country.

  • William Brangham:

    Today, Jagmeet Singh, son of Sikh immigrants from India and leader of the New Democrats, called the images of Trudeau troubling.

  • Jagmeet Singh:

    How do you look someone in the eye that's mocked the lived reality that I have lived, but, more importantly, that so many Canadians have lived?

  • William Brangham:

    In the past, Trudeau has often cast himself as a champion of multiculturalism, welcoming Syrian refugees arriving into Canada, and surrounding himself with a diverse cabinet.

    Today, a number of his liberal party followers said they are sticking with him, but the scandal has cast new doubt on his political future.

    Also in Winnipeg today, Trudeau said he wouldn't rule out the existence of additional photos, given the fact that he didn't remember these prior cases.

    Joining me now to talk about the fallout is Elamin Abdelmahmoud. He is an editor at BuzzFeed News and the co-host of "Party Lines," a podcast about Canadian politics.

    Elamin, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    This obviously comes at a, frankly, terrible time for the prime minister, right as this election campaign is gearing up. What is your sense of the fallout from all of this?

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    Right.

    So we are fortunate in this country to have a much shorter campaign period, while the U.S. is still somehow reliving the 2016 campaign. We have about a 40-day campaign period. And so this is about the worst time for the prime minister to have this come out, because we're about eight days into it, and it will wrap up October 21.

    And so, as you can imagine, we have a saying that's constant that campaigns matter. And the reason they do is because, when an event like this happens, it can totally, completely shift the course of the campaign.

    For the past few days, the Liberals, Trudeau's party, has been harming this message about affordability, about how they're going to help the middle-class. Nobody is talking about that today. And everyone's talking about all of the comments that he's made about racism, his history with being a very woke prime minister, as compared to these photos that just came out.

  • William Brangham:

    And my understanding is, is that this also dovetails with what the Conservatives have been trying to attack him on.

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    Right.

    So, the Conservatives have been kind of trying to deliver the message that — their campaign slogan is that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised. Most of that argument has been about his sort of like taxation policies.

    They say that he's going to do one thing, but actually doing another. But when it comes to this case, Justin Trudeau is probably most well known outside of this country for all of the sort of like performances of being a pretty woke, sort of understanding of social justice kind of prime minister.

    And so when you have a situation like this that is just coming to light now, it kind of gives a bit more credibility to their notion that Justin Trudeau is not as advertised.

    It's, frankly, a shock that Trudeau himself wouldn't have addressed this in the intervening years, whether when he became a member of Parliament, when he became the leader of his party, when he became prime minister. He's had plenty of time, plenty of opportunities to just educate people on this.

    And so that the way it's coming out now, it doesn't look good for him.

  • William Brangham:

    Given the concentrated nature of campaigns, as you describe, which, frankly, I can say, here in America, we would love a 40-day campaign.

    But…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    I can imagine, yes.

  • William Brangham:

    … is your sense that, given that, that this is going to move the needle in a substantial way against him?

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    I mean, listen, it's the only conversation that there is in Canadian politics today. And it that wasn't that yesterday.

    Before the election and up until the first few days of the campaign period, the polls have been reflecting a relative sort of tie between the Liberals and the Conservatives, with the NDP being a long, sort of distant third.

    This kind of upends that, because, for the next few days, we will be seeing Justin Trudeau apologize and apologize again. He did his second apology today. I don't think he's put it to bed. There are still a lot of questions for him to answer.

    And so, when we say campaigns matter, what we really mean is, over just a couple of days, how you handle a situation like this can either give you momentum or make you stuck in a rut that is just like that these are the only questions that you take.

    You can imagine, in a 40-day period, if he ends up taking questions about this for five, six days in a row, that's a significant sort of fraction of that campaign period. And so this could really shift the momentum of the campaign, but this happened yesterday.

    It happened last night. It hasn't even been 24 hours, so it's a little bit too early to tell on that front.

  • William Brangham:

    Here in the U.S., blackface imagery is pretty known. It's pretty clearly — everyone understands that that's racist icons.

    Do the Canadians have a similar appreciation of and history for blackface and seeing it as racist caricatures?

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    You know, I got to tell you, somehow, this country has kind of — this country being Canada — we have skated with this international sort of reputation of not being an especially racist country, not having that kind of deep history of racism.

    But we really do. We have really struggled with having quality conversations about racism, about multiculturalism in this country. This is a moment to have those conversations, because, yes, like, every single year, we see stories about college students or somewhat famous people in Canada who end up dressing up in blackface, in brownface, and being criticized publicly for it.

    So we struggle with it the same way that the U.S. does. I think we don't have the reputation that we do. And that's kind of fortunate. But we have that sort of long history here too.

  • William Brangham:

    The prime minister today said that it was really — he had a hard time seeing how racist this was through his layers of privilege.

    Is that going to work as an excuse for people? Are — people say, OK, I can understand that, you're the son of a prime minister, you maybe didn't appreciate this, or is that not going to fly?

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    I mean, look, the fact of the matter is, when the when the photo of him in the Aladdin costume came out, it happened, he was he was 29 years old.

    And you pull any 29-year-old out from the street, and hopefully you would think they would know better, even if the conversations about blackface and brownface were not as evolved in 2001 as they are now.

    We have certainly come a long way as a society in terms of talking about these issues a little bit more. But it's not like he was less racist then.

    And so, when he says that he's had layers of privilege that helped him not see that that was the case, I believe him. I think I take that seriously.

    But, at the same time, he has a bit of a history of talking about words like systemic discrimination or privilege, words that are very popular on the progressive left, but not really a lot of history being probed on whether he really understands what those means.

    So I think this is maybe an opportunity to have a more fulsome conversation about that and see what that looks like.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Elamin Abdelmahmoud, thank you very, very much for being here.

  • Elamin Abdelmahmoud:

    My pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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