Image Credit: 2017 Canada Summer Games
With federal elections fast approaching, Justin Trudeau has been met with personal scandal. Pictures have been brought to light showing a young Trudeau attending an Arabian Nights fancy dress party with his face painted black. Instead of hitting the campaign trail spreading his plans for Canadian politics, Trudeau has instead been making statements of remorse against racist accusations. He also used a statement to try and get ahead of the press by admitting to one further occasion where he had worn similar dark make up during a talent competition in high school while performing the song ‘Day-O.’
The Prime Minister’s nightmare did not end here. A video was soon obtained exclusively by Global News in which he had also painted his face black for theatrical purposes during a costume day for river guides for a whitewater rafting operation in Quebec. Trudeau responded to the video saying he is unable to recall firmly how many times he has done this in the past. His team have gone into damage control to ensure it does not cause catastrophic results on election night for their candidate, as the scandal has hit dangerously close to the election.
Some commentators have remarked that during national elections, candidates endeavour to avoid personal scandal. Failure to do so can cause a race to the end before it has begun. Yet, Justin Trudeau is not only a candidate, he is the Prime Minister. In most national elections this platform offers a unique advantage over the candidates. On the other end of the spectrum, it can provide vast exposure when a scandal hits.
The photo has opened up a discussion on institutionlised racism in Canada that had previously been neglected. This is a conversation that critics are claiming Trudeau wanted to avoid. Supporters, however, are approching it from another angle calling for a deeper bipartisan discussion on racism.
Green Party leader, Elizabeth May, came forward in an interview with The West Block explaining how she was “deeply shocked” by the photo and found his behaviour shameful. She also took the oppurtunity to make it clear that the debate on racism in Canada still needs attention.
Ottawa-based human rights lawyer, Aditya Rao, expressed similar concern and has been a vocal contributor to the issue. While he did not doubt that Trudeau’s apology was sincere, he did use the scandal to highlight the Prime Minister’s poor record on structural racism, such as poverty, and his lack of support for indigenous communities.
While many have been quick to criticise Trudeau’s behaviour, others have come to the Prime Minister’s defence. On a segment for Nick Ferrari’s show on Leading Britain’s Conversation, a national phone in talk radio show, one caller explained how the press experiences huge delight in digging up politicians’ pasts to cause strife. The same caller continued to insist that Trudeau had apologised for his behaviour from almost 20 years ago and that it was perhaps time to move forward. While the public may place them on a pedestal, politicians are as susceptible to error as the rest of us. Focusing on mistakes from the past may not be the most productive use of our time, or the best path for intelligent political debate.
Criticising Trudeau’s behaviour, Ferrari was quick to fire back at the caller, asking what would have happened if similar pictures had emerged from Donald Trump’s past. He insisted that the reaction would have been vastly different with no one saying he had learnt from his mistakes. Ferrari highlighted a contemporary trend in political language that stemmed originally from a Soviet propaganda technique, this trend being ‘whataboutism.’ This is where one issue is lessened by raising another problem in its place. Nonetheless, it wasn’t a photo of Trump that surfaced and it has been Trudeau that has had to manage it with less than a month before election day.
The Liberals and Conservatives were at a dead heat in the national polls when the election proceedings began. When the photo from Trudeau’s past first emerged, the Liberals faced a dip in their support. As the scandal broke, BBC News reported that an Ipsos poll for Global News depicted that the Conservatives had gained momentum with a 36 per cent chance of winning a majority over the Liberals’ 32 per cent. As time has progressed this sudden right wing surge has been slipping.
Pollsters cannot yet predict the long term damage that this photo has caused. This will be made clear on 21 October. In the meantime, the photo from his past has unsteadied Trudeau’s liberal image that set him apart from Harper in 2015.