After brownface scandal, how do minority Canadians view Trudeau?

Why We Wrote This

Personal scandals or public policies – which matter more to race relations? That’s a question voters in one of Toronto’s majority-minority neighborhoods are grappling with in the wake of images of the Canadian prime minister in brownface.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP
Liberal leader Justin Trudeau's campaign is trying to contain a growing furor after a yearbook photo surfaced of him in brownface at a 2001 "Arabian Nights" costume party and two other similar incidents came to light, just a month away from federal elections.

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Rahma Hilowle, whose parents immigrated from Somalia, says she was deeply disappointed when images surfaced of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in black- and brownface. “I honestly thought he was better than that,” she says, speaking on Saturday with her sister.

Now the country’s October elections have become more complicated for her. She does believe his apology was sincere, and that people change. She also believes the Conservatives would place far less attention on tackling racism in Canadian society.

Above all, she would like the election to return the focus on the issues that matter most to them: student debt, affordable housing, and gun violence.

Mr. Trudeau has tried to change the subject, over the weekend unveiling major policy proposals on everything from cellphones to gun control. And for many voters, that is what they expect. A new poll by Ekos Politics showed that racial minorities seem to be the least swayed by the incidents, with the Liberals leading among that demographic.

“I understand that this is an issue, but I find sometimes people tend to focus on scandals, as opposed to actual policies that will affect us moving forward,” her sister Amy Hilowle says.

As a black woman and immigrant, Bridget Phillip says she understands the subtleties of hidden racism in Canadian society, even if she herself has never been the direct victim of it.

But when she saw the now infamous images of her Prime Minister Justin Trudeau donning black- and brownface in his past, she says she wasn’t offended – and didn’t think it had anything to do with systematic racism in Canada.

“We’re happy that they’re talking about it. But sometimes you have to talk about it for the right reasons,” says Ms. Phillip, in a shopping mall on Sunday in one of Toronto’s most multicultural neighborhoods. “There are a lot more important things to talk about than to dwell on what just happened.”

Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau’s acknowledgement last week that his own “blind spot” was behind the decision to paint his face dark as Aladdin at a school fundraiser while he was a teacher, amid other incidents, has forced Canada to challenge its own biases. In a country celebrated for its multiculturalism, many have in the past week called for a teaching moment.

But in Toronto’s Jane and Finch area, which is majority minority, voters expressed frustration at a “gotcha”-style politics that is overshadowing the policies they care most about – access to education, affordable housing, and a reduction of gun violence, for example – and want Canada to move on.

“We just don’t talk about it”

It’s not that they are OK with the status quo. Despite its embrace of Syrian refugees or welcoming rhetoric toward immigrants, those interviewed say, Canada fails racial minorities at many turns, whether it be higher victimization rates of gun shootings or greater barriers to getting jobs.

Still, just a month away from federal elections, they say the focus has been misplaced on Mr. Trudeau’s character. While images of their leader in brownface, one as late as 2001 when he was 29, would derail the electoral prospects of many, they say such an outcome could bring in a government that is even more unlikely to face the tough questions about race and inequality ahead.

It’s unclear how this will affect Mr. Trudeau at the ballot box. A new poll by Ekos Politics showed that racial minorities seem to be the least swayed by the incidents, with the Liberals leading among that demographic. Data from the firm Abacus released Monday showed that Mr. Trudeau’s personal rating has taken a hit, but voter intention hasn’t widely swung. It’s been a tight race between the Liberals and Conservatives and continues to be. Their data showed that 34% of respondents said the incident bothered them but that Mr. Trudeau’s apology sufficed. Another 24% said their views of Mr. Trudeau have changed for the worse. Some 42% of respondents say the incident didn’t bother them.

Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press/AP
New Democratic Party Leader Jagmeet Singh spoke of the pain that Prime Minister Trudeau's “brownface” scandal raised for many Canadians, including himself, and reached out to those affected, in Mississauga, Ontario, on Sept. 18.

For some analysts that is unfortunate, in a country that tends to juxtapose itself with the U.S. and give itself a pass when it comes to legacies of racism, whether that is over-romanticizing its embrace of freed U.S. slaves or simply not talking about how old inequalities manifest in income or mobility.

“A lot of people think Canada has less racism than other countries. Actually, the reality is we have just as much racism; we just don’t talk about it,” says Lori Wilkinson, a University of Manitoba professor who focuses on race relations. “I have always thought Americans are more willing to talk about it than Canadians. A lot of Canadians are busy patting themselves on the back while the problem festers.”

The wrong focus?

The incident has caused pause for minority voters. Rahma Hilowle, whose parents immigrated from Somalia, says she was deeply disappointed. “I honestly thought he was better than that,” she says. And now the October vote has become more complicated for her. She supports the New Democratic Party, but since they are lagging so far behind in polls, she was planning to vote strategically for the Liberals to keep the Conservatives out of power.

She does believe his apology was sincere, and that people change. She also believes the Conservatives would place far less attention on tackling racism in Canadian society. “It’s complicated,” she says.

Above all, she and her younger sister Amy, at the mall on a Sunday morning after the gym, say they would like the election to return the focus on the issues that matter most to them: student debt, affordable housing, and gun violence. “I understand that this is an issue, but I find sometimes people tend to focus on scandals, as opposed to actual policies that will affect us moving forward,” Amy Hilowle says.

Mr. Trudeau has tried to change the subject, over the weekend unveiling major policy proposals on everything from cellphones to gun control. And for many voters, that is what they expect.

Triumph Muta, who lives and studies in the Jane and Finch neighborhood, says that as prime minister, Mr. Trudeau has to be a role model. “But focus on the programs,” he says. “The personal is secondary.”

Mr. Muta, who is studying business economics at university, says that he does believe racism is behind some lack of opportunities for black people in a white-dominated society. But Mr. Trudeau is not, in his eyes, one of the problems.

“Personally as a black man, I wasn’t offended by that,” he says. “I know a lot of people who don’t do blackface who are more racist. As long as he apologizes, we should forgive him, and move on.”

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