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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Blackface/brownface — a defining moment for Trudeau?

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a news conference at Rideau Hall after asking Governor General Julie Payette to dissolve Parliament, and mark the start of a federal election campaign in Ottawa on Sept. 11, 2019.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. — Reuters file photo

When it comes to the revelations about Justin Trudeau appearing in brownface and blackface makeup, it’s very tempting to say “live by the sword, die by the sword.”

During this election campaign, Liberal strategists have been assiduously mining the social media accounts of Conservative candidates, looking for mud to sling online. You can only imagine the uproar those same strategists would have tried to whip up if they’d found a similar picture of a senior Conservative candidate.

It’s almost poetic justice to see the Liberal leader caught in the same trap his staff were springing on others.

But I said this last week and I’ll say it again: people do stupid things when they are young, and the internet won’t forget that. We have to stop and think in the new world of constant social justice about whether forgiveness for past behaviour actually exists, or whether stupid behaviour by young people is essentially going to receive a longer sentence than criminal behaviour does.

(In some ways, that applies to Trudeau, and in many others, it doesn’t. When the first instance to come to light, from 2001, took place, putting on brownface or blackface makeup was pretty clearly recognized as racist. And Trudeau was 29 then, not a youngster by any means. As more instances appear, Trudeau’s on ever-thinner ice.)

As Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said when the tactics were being used against his candidates, “As long as someone takes responsibility for what they’ve said, and addresses the fact that in 2019 some things that may have been said in the past are inappropriate today, that if anything that they’ve ever said in the past caused any type of hurt or disrespect to one community or another and have apologized for that, I accept that.”

The particular irony in this case is that Trudeau and the Liberals didn’t accept that position from Scheer, but Trudeau is now publicly asking for the same benefit of the doubt.

The problem is that mining the past for “gotcha” comments or pictures actually doesn’t do anything to address racism — it could, however, lead to a thorough erasing of any past behaviour that hasn’t already been caught by a timely screenshot or that archaic device, the printed photograph.

Overall, this is a mess with very few heroes, including in the media.

Journalists, with few issues making much traction in this campaign, have certainly jumped on the issue like hungry dogs on fresh meat. Want breathless, near-shouting coverage? You got it Wednesday night.

Journalists, with few issues making much traction in this campaign, have certainly jumped on the issue like hungry dogs on fresh meat. Want breathless, near-shouting coverage? You got it Wednesday night.

But that all ignores the question of whether zapping public figures with their past racist, homophobic or insensitive comments really does anything to address systemic racism. I’d suggest that it doesn’t, but that the best people to ask about that are people who have actually faced racism, rather than people who haven’t.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh makes a good point when he says, “What does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the colour of their skin, face obstacles and barriers and challenges in their life?”

That’s exactly true: what does it say about what Trudeau actually thinks?

Do snapshots from the past define a person’s entire outlook on the world? How do we find out what Trudeau actually thinks? Or how Scheer thinks? Or even Singh, for that matter? How much of the outrage is, as the Liberals’ social mining was, crass politics?

I don’t think spots in time necessarily define anyone’s whole life — but then again, the fact is that I haven’t faced systemic racism, and I don’t know how crushing I would find it to discover that someone I hoped would be a champion for fairness had instead taken part in the behaviour Trudeau did. That’s not my decision to make.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.


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