As Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal has thrust race into a dominant narrative of the federal election campaign, there have been calls to steer the conversation away from partisanship and towards a deeper discussion on systemic racism in Canada.
Omer Aziz, a former Liberal foreign policy adviser who has sharply criticized Trudeau, said the dialogue is occurring in an “extremely toxic” space right now, and he isn’t optimistic about where it’s headed.
“But I do know that before we can get to a more positive place in society, we need to have greater understanding, and a lot of the times understanding comes with having the difficult, vulnerable conversations,” he said.
WATCH: Trudeau apologizes again after blackface video emerges
Trudeau has apologized for using racist makeup — once in 2001 when he was 29 while dressing as Aladdin during an “Arabian nights” event, once in high school while performing Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O), and once in the early 1990s during a costume day at his whitewater rafting job. He said he didn’t think it was racist when he did it.
Ottawa human rights lawyer Aditya Rao said he has no doubt that Trudeau’s apologies have been sincere, but criticized his record on issues connected to structural racism, such as poverty, Canada’s treatment of refugees and safe drinking water in Indigenous communities.
The dialogue on racism presents an opportunity to shift the cameras away from those who are merely wanting to earn political points and onto those trying to raise the profile of advocates who have been living the issues at play, Rao said.
He took direct aim at the Conservative Party, which he suggested needs to take a look at its own record.
“As the story broke, immediately it was in part an opportunity for partisan politics,” said Rao, who has a longtime affiliation with the NDP. “And people jumped on it.
“I was disappointed that, you know, for example, Andrew Scheer was given a platform to kind of just claim that he was disappointed, but was rarely, if ever, challenged about his own party’s affiliations with the far right.”
WATCH: Scheer says Conservatives will promote inclusiveness, tackle discrimination
Global News emailed the Conservative Party asking for its response to those bringing up Scheer’s record on issues such as immigration and racial discrimination.
A spokesperson did not reply, but Scheer gave a speech in May in which he strongly rejected hateful views and said his party wouldn’t tolerate them.
During a campaign event in P.E.I. on Sept. 20, the Conservative leader said all levels of government need to address the types of issues raised by Trudeau’s conduct.
“Conservatives will always support measures that tackle discrimination,” he told reporters. “We’ll always promote policies that promote inclusiveness and equality throughout our society.”
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Trudeau is not the only candidate whose past racist dress has come to light in the course of the election campaign.
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May was unequivocal in denouncing Trudeau’s wearing of blackface — but is standing by her own candidate, comedic actor Greg Malone, who disclosed that he once wore brownface while playing Mahatma Gandhi on the CBC comedy CODCO that aired in the late ’80s and early ’90s.
“I think that the context of it being a comedy show in an era where it was broadcast on national television was not something that was hidden and it was not something that he would do today,” she told Global News Ottawa Bureau Chief Mercedes Stephenson last week.
“And I know Greg extremely well — there are not multiple incidents. And it wasn’t part of a private life entertainment that he thought was appropriate. So given the outrageousness of CODCO in the day, I think it falls in a different category.”
WATCH: An extended interview with Green Party Leader Elizabeth May
And yet, Rao said May’s reaction is “another instance of the privilege that comes with being able to kind of take stances that are convenient for you.”
While the Trudeau story has brought issues of racial discrimination to the forefront of the election campaign, Aziz and Rao both pointed out that the ability to selectively tune in and out of the issues surrounding racism is a privilege that people of colour do not have.
The Trudeau blackface incidents, which prompted significant public dialogue, may have left some white Canadians feeling uncomfortable about racism for the first time, Aziz said.
The issue “always becomes about how whites in our society all of a sudden feel uncomfortable when we’re talking about racism,” he said. “But the actual people who’ve been living it have been feeling that discomfort in their bodies and nerves their entire lives.”
Sidrah Ahmad-Chan, co-founder of an anti-Islamophobia organization, said that the myth about Canada not being racist, or at least “not as bad” as the U.S., is being smashed for good.
WATCH: Blackface’s long, dismal history and why it’s racist, demeaning and hurtful
“How can we tell ourselves that story if (election) signs are being defaced with swastikas or the prime minister shows up in brownface and blackface?” Ahmad-Chan, who is with the Rivers of Hope Project, told the Canadian Press earlier this week.
Aziz said it’s time for a “reckoning” on racism in Canada. He is writing a book, called Brown Boy, expected to be released in Canada by Simon & Schuster by early 2021. It deals with racism in the abstract but also his own experiences, he said.
He wrote in the Globe and Mail this week that Trudeau’s wearing of racist makeup felt “like a personal betrayal.”
Last weekend, after that interview was published, he told Global News that he found his critiques were being boosted by people whose views on issues like immigration he vehemently disagrees with.
“I had to ask myself, am I being used now? And am I being played, right?”
Trudeau has apologized several times since Time magazine first published the 2001 photo, which set off a flurry of headlines around the world.
“The fact is I didn’t understand how hurtful this is to people who live with discrimination every single day,” Trudeau told reporters in Winnipeg.
“I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege — but I now need to acknowledge that that comes with a massive blind spot.’’
Trudeau’s wilful “innocence” on the realities of people of colour is at the heart of the issue, Aziz said.
“I think the real problem in that picture is not that he holds malicious views or that he was secretly racist.”
WATCH: Jagmeet Singh delivers emotional reaction to Trudeau brownface photo
“I’m sure he was lovely and a very nice young man,” Aziz said. “That’s the problem, right? The problem is that you can be a nice, young, outwardly well-adjusted man from an extreme amount of privilege and still engage in this kind of racist mockery.”
With files from The Canadian Press