Editor’s Note: Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst and a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
For someone who was already fighting for his political future, the timing couldn’t have been worse.
On Wednesday, Time magazine published a photo from 2001, showing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing brownface at an “Arabian Nights” theme party.
In the yearbook photo, Trudeau, then a 29-year-old teacher, poses with four women. He is the only person in brown-face and appears to have both arms around the woman closest to him.
At a press conference on his campaign plane shortly after the news broke, an ashen-faced Trudeau said he was “sorry” and “pissed off at myself” and identified the woman as “a close friend.”
The damage may not end there. Pressed by reporters, Trudeau suggested there were other times where he might have dressed up in an inappropriate way. He said there was a time in high school when he dressed up with makeup and sang “Day O” – an admission that will almost certainly send the war rooms of opposition parties into a frenzy and journalists digging further into Trudeau’s past.
The brownface photo is devastating for the Trudeau campaign as October’s national elections approach, especially since one of its tactics has been to dig up social media dirt on opponents – many of whom are young and have had a digital footprint from almost the time they were born.
The strategy has already derailed rival parties, forced some opponents to resign over race issues. Now, using that opposition research could expose the prime minister’s Liberal Party to accusations of a double standard. But if the entire approach is suspended, it could also place Liberals at a potential disadvantage.
The incident will surely play into the rival Conservative Party’s narrative that Trudeau is not the paragon of progressive virtue he seems to be. The son of the late Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he modeled himself as a chief promoter of minority rights and multiculturalism. But opponents say the man who pledged “sunny ways” in his 2015 campaign and promised to do politics differently, cannot be trusted, especially after he violated conflict of interest guidelines.
Late on Wednesday night after the photo came out, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, in a brief statement, said Trudeau lacked judgment and integrity and was not fit to govern Canada.
Scheer, who has been playing defense since hitting the hustings, will certainly welcome the winds of scandal blowing the other way. Throughout the campaign, he has been responding to allegations of impropriety found in dated social media posts of some of his candidates.
Canada’s elections take place on October 21, and it’s looking like a tough race. Any perception of being insensitive or hypocritical– as an “imposter,” in the words of one major Canadian newsmagazine earlier this year – is certainly not the way Trudeau wants to be seen.
In the run-up to the federal election campaign, Trudeau has been criticized by opponents as coming across as insincere, especially after his handling of the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Jagmeet Singh, standard bearer for the New Democratic Party, has called Trudeau’s behavior “troubling” and “insulting.”
And Rachel Curran, director of policy to former Prime Minister Stephen Harper, told me, “The statement did not sound sincere in the least. He choked out the absolute briefest of apologies that sounded entirely scripted, and made no mention of the impact of his actions on minority communities.”
That aspect is probably what Trudeau will be addressing tomorrow and the days to follow: the potential hurt for minorities, who make up a large percentage of voters in key constituencies in vote-rich Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia.
There are still more than 30 days to go until Canadians head to the polls. Until now, the Liberals have been focusing on bettering the livelihoods of the Canadian middle class, with Trudeau traveling in a media bubble with picture-perfect moments.
Before today, his party was probably within reach of a minority government – knocked off their current majority by scandals ranging from the finding that Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules in the corporate criminal case of SNC-Lavalin to his controversy-mired state visit to India in 2018. He is also being attacked for bloating the federal deficit and for not delivering on campaign promises like reforming electoral laws.
What baffles many analysts is why the Liberals waited until it came out this way. Trudeau could have tried to limit the damage by coming out with the news himself – he must have known about the damage it did to the US’ Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, after revelations of a blackface image on his yearbook school page. (Northam initially apologized for being in the image, then he insisted it wasn’t him.)
Of course, what seems an unimaginable scandal today could also appear to be a tempest-in-a-teapot some days later. But for now, the Liberal campaign will be forced to shift into a strategy which no campaign team relishes: crisis mode. And Trudeau has plenty of explaining and apologizing to do to save his embattled government from being banished to the opposition benches of Parliament.