The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Justin Trudeau’s blackface incidents are part of a long history of racism in Canada

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during an election campaign stop in Toronto on Sept. 20. (REUTERS/Carlos Osorio)
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Andray Domise is a Toronto-based writer and contributing editor to Maclean’s magazine.

When explaining racism in Canada to a U.S. audience, I always have to spend an inordinate amount of time debunking the misconceptions of people unfamiliar with our history. For example: “At least you didn’t have slavery.” This doozy of an opener overlooks the 200 years of documented slavery in Canada. “But didn’t Canada accept runaway slaves?” In some parts, yes. In others, we would later make every concerted effort to force black refugees, fleeing the violence of the Jim Crow era, out of the prairies. “Segregated businesses?” We had that. “The KKK?” We had that too, and the capital of Alberta even granted a municipal charter to the Klan that was valid as late as 2003.

This history comes to mind after the latest revelations about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was elected partially on the strength of a pro-multiculturalism platform, turning out to have once been quite the fan of blackface. Canada — just like Trudeau — has an exceedingly good public relations machine that obscures its racist past and whitewashes its current injustices under gleaming platitudes. But as the country discovered this week, there’s only so much that any PR machine can handle; its red line definitely stops short of multiple documented instances of blackface.

To Canadians of color, this discovery hardly comes as a shock. You see, blackface is another well-documented Canadian tradition we don’t speak much about and rarely contextualize. Every instance of blackface — from boorish hockey fans to boorish hockey players to boorish francophone comedians — is atomized into a series of isolated examples that are not connected to the broader history of blackface in the country.

This erasure has been so prevalent that Philip S. S. Howard, an assistant professor at McGill University in Quebec, took up a project to assemble a timeline of blackface incidents throughout Canadian history. The timeline begins with traveling circuses replete with Jim Crow acts in 1841, spans a slew of minstrel performances in the 19th and 20th centuries, and terminates in 2016 with a grocery store in Chatham, Ontario — a city that prides itself on being a former terminal point on the underground railroad.

Because the project wrapped in 2017, Trudeau’s recently revealed shameful outings don’t appear on the list.

These incidents cannot be separated from their ugly origins, steeped in the dehumanization of black people and propagandizing the audiences of minstrel shows into the myth of black inferiority. Neither can brownface, which would more accurately describe Trudeau’s first reported incident, be divorced from the brutal history of Europeans colonizing South Asia.

Moreover, the prevalence of blackface — an outward expression of racial condescension and animosity, whether the wearer consciously believes it or not — cannot be separated from unfortunate trends in the present. These attitudes feed into patterns that target and harm communities of color to this day. Police-reported hate crimes in Canada have surged in recent years (and only recently abated somewhat). In London, Ontario, one of the cities affected by the spike in hate crimes, a London Police Service officer was discovered to have attended a Halloween party in blackface. These views also comport with the increase in activity among far-right extremists, with a recent Canadian Security and Intelligence Service report (obtained through a freedom of information request) acknowledging that links exist between Canadian extremism online and contemporaries in Europe and the United States.

What that means for Trudeau is that, as the leader of Canada’s governing Liberal Party, asking the voters to return the Liberals to power in the October election requires more than the acknowledgment of a personal failure from nearly 20 years ago. It also requires the prime minister to explain, in light of these revelations, what makes him the best candidate to bring the country together at a time when anti-immigrant sentiment and racialized injustices mar Canada’s national character. This doesn’t let other federal party leaders off the hook: As Fatima Syed of the National Observer reported, this election has been marked from the beginning by the background radiation of racism, and that has been a multipartisan effort.

As many of my colleagues of color in Canadian political media have noted, our already-frustrating work is made manifestly more difficult when the outcome of Canadian attitudes toward race affects us personally. The solutions to that won’t be decided over the few short weeks of the campaign, and perhaps they won’t be solved in our lifetimes. But the time for hiding from our country’s sins has long since passed.

As Trudeau is forced to grapple with the consequences of his dehumanizing history, perhaps one step we can take in this election is to decide whether the rest of the country is mature enough to do the same with our collective history as well.

Read more:

Vicky Mochama: Justin Trudeau’s racist photos are no game for people of color

Henry Olsen: Canada’s left should dump Justin Trudeau

J.J. McCullough: Will Trudeau’s ‘blackface’ photo end Canada’s shame-based politics?