After blackface scandal, what’s next? Five things about the campaign to come

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OTTAWA — The discovery that Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wore brown- and blackface on more than one occasion as a younger man has rocked the federal election campaign to its foundations. As Canadians begin thinking ahead to the Oct. 21 vote, here are some things to keep in mind in anticipation of what could come next.

It’s early days yet.

Campaigns matter, according to the old political maxim, and we are only 10 days into this one. Earlier this week, the conversation was about the Liberals and the Conservatives battling it out over who could offer more tax relief for families with children. Now, all anyone is talking about is Trudeau, hailed by many around the world as the progressive counterpoint to U.S. President Donald Trump, having worn brown- and blackface, more than once, in the not-so-distant past. (Trump himself expressed surprise Friday.) There’s a lot of time left yet for a lot of things to happen between now and Oct. 21.

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There could be more.

It’s possible more photos or videos of Trudeau having darkened his skin to dress up as racial minorities will surface. When asked Wednesday, Trudeau confessed to having worn blackface as a student to sing the ‘Banana Boat Song (Day O)’ by Harry Belafonte at a high school talent show. The next morning, Global News published video of an entirely different incident, which the Liberal leader says was from a costume day in the 1990s when he worked summers as a white-water rafting instructor on the Rouge River in Quebec. Trudeau said he had not remembered the incident until after it came out, which is why he is not ruling out the possibility of there being more.

Repeated apologies

Even if the blackface barrage does abate, it is unlikely he will be able to stop talking about it — or apologizing — for a while yet. On top of the public apologies Trudeau has made over three days so far, he has also been speaking privately with candidates, community leaders, his campaign team and others who were hurt and disappointed by his actions. On Friday, Trudeau also said he would like to have a conversation with NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh who wears a turban and the first visible minority to lead a federal political party. “I think he’ll be apologizing from now until at least Oct. 21 any time the issue comes up and perhaps beyond that,” said Jim Armour, a former Conservative staffer who is now vice-president at Summa Strategies.

Could he resign as Liberal leader?

Canadians vote for their local MP in federal elections, not the prime minister, so if Trudeau stepped down then it would technically be a matter of replacing the Liberal candidate in Papineau, Que., or having him remain on the local ballot while someone else is chosen as interim leader. The chances of that happening in the middle of an election campaign, however, are virtually nil. There is, however, precedent for a party leader promising not to seek an additional term if elected again. Former British prime minister David Cameron did that in 2015, which helped secure an unexpected victory for his Conservative party. When Trudeau was asked Thursday whether he would step down, he said Canadians should decide whether his party should remain in power: “I know that is something that all Canadians get to decide and they get to bring in all sorts of different factors, because every Canadian has a different way of looking at what matters to them.”

Will they stop slinging mud?


The Liberals put a lot of effort the first week of the campaign sharing evidence of controversial views by Conservative candidates found on social media and elsewhere, which disrupted Andrew Scheer on his tour. Now that Trudeau is having to apologize repeatedly for having worn brown- and blackface in his past, which he acknowledged was racist, some are wondering whether the Liberal campaign will change its tone. “The last thing the Liberal war room would want to do is appear to be tone deaf,” said Greg MacEachern, a former Liberal aide who is now senior vice-president at Proof Strategies. Still, Trudeau suggested his campaign team is not prepared to let everything go as the Liberals share their plans with Canadians. “We will always and continue to do that in a way that pushes back against intolerance and racism every step of the way,” he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2019.

— Follow @smithjoanna on Twitter

Joanna Smith, The Canadian Press

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