Nevertheless, the scandal deserves to remain an important story simply for the colossal betrayal of trust it represents.
Trudeau’s commentary on his blackface habit has been stiff and unmoving. He has avoided explaining why he did it or the total number of times he has done so. The closest he came to a moment of introspection was at a Winnipeg news conference when he blamed his “privilege.”
“I have always acknowledged that I come from a place of privilege,” he said a few weeks ago, “but I now need to acknowledge that comes with a massive blind spot.”
This is not how privilege theory works. Concepts such as “white privilege” explain why people like Trudeau, the wealthy son of a former prime minister, are able to get away with doing terrible things. It is not an excuse to be cited when the privileged feel victimized by their own ignorance.
Given that blackface was an extremely well-established racist trope by the time Trudeau donned it, reporters have pestered the prime minister about when he “learned” it was wrong. He has never given a recognizably humanoid reply. Asked recently by Global’s Dawna Friesen, he babbled about his decision to move back to Montreal from Vancouver and be a “good representative” in Parliament for “one of the most diverse, multicultural ridings in the country” — implying that empathy is something gained through political necessity. Vancouver, after all, is a diverse, multicultural place, too, but Trudeau wasn’t soliciting votes when he lived there.
At some point, the sheer volume of oblivious damage control for Trudeau’s oblivious behavior demands a harsh conclusion: The prime minister may simply lack the capacity to grasp basic cultural norms the rest of us take for granted. His sheltered upbringing, one so extreme it prevented him from understanding a concept as infamous as blackface until he was in his 30s, is less excuse than cause for ongoing alarm.
It’s worth remembering that Trudeau’s political career is barely a decade old. Despite his dynastic claim, many believed he arrived late and ill-prepared for his date with destiny, and his emergence on the political scene was greeted with deep skepticism of his competence and intelligence. His habit for malapropisms and jokes of strikingly bad taste — as when he suggested Russia was torturing Ukraine because it was angry Canada beat them at hockey — were used to construct a narrative that would become the Conservative Party’s 2015 slogan: “He’s just not ready.”
Things changed after his unexpectedly decisive election as prime minister, and the ensuing U.S. presidential election, which allowed Trudeau to be reimagined from naive political neophyte to youthful embodiment of stereotypical Canadian progressiveness. There’s relatively little evidence that he was ever particularly preoccupied with social justice until larger forces concluded he should be. That we now know a 29-year-old Trudeau was wearing blackface serves as blunt reminder of the lateness of his conversion to wokeness.
Trudeau’s ability to embarrass the nation so spectacularly was only possible thanks to another betrayal of trust, however: the Canadian press’s marked disinterest in exploring the prime minister’s past.
Many Canadians have wondered why it took an American publication, Time magazine, to break the blackface story, particularly given that the most damning photo was found in the yearbook of the Vancouver school where he once taught — hardly an obscure source. It evoked memories of the Trudeau “groping” scandal that captivated Canada months earlier, in which a blogger exposed a damning story from Trudeau’s younger years that had similarly heretofore escaped mainstream attention.
Two Trudeau biographies by respected Canadian journalists have been released in recent months, yet neither is interested in the prime minister’s origin story, preferring to study his short career as a politician in isolation. Such ongoing media disinterest in exploring the considerably larger portion of Trudeau’s life spent as a dilettante dauphin has provoked endless right-wing conspiracy theories, often extrapolated from provocative leads the media has avoided chasing.
What was the nature of Trudeau’s admitted friendship with Christopher Ingvaldson, a man convicted of child pornography possession in 2013 who taught with Trudeau in Vancouver? Why did Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau respond with “Ha! Really?” and “I’m not saying it did or didn’t” when she was told in a 2015 interview that her husband had denied cheating? What did Trudeau mean when he allegedly told Don Martin a decade ago that he had “too many secrets” to run for office? Why is Trudeau continuing to deny having drinks with far-right provocateur Faith Goldy in 2012, despite credible witnesses claiming otherwise?
Unlike the American press, which traditionally employs a maximalist standard of accountability for politicians, many Canadian journalists are squeamish about covering a public figure’s “private” business, imperiously decreeing that personal lives “shouldn’t matter.” That Trudeau’s political rise has benefited from this bias is hard to deny, but in a post-“Kokanee Grope,” post-blackface era, it will be that much harder to sustain studied incuriousness about the country’s most powerful man.