But since then, scandals have sullied Trudeau’s initial image.
On Wednesday, Time magazine published a 2001 photograph that shows Trudeau’s face covered in dark makeup for an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he was then a teacher. He apologized Wednesday evening, saying he “dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put makeup on.”
“I shouldn’t have done that,” he said. “I should have known better, but I didn’t, and I’m really sorry.”
Then another old photo emerged. And an old video from another occasion where his face appeared to be painted black. By Thursday, Trudeau was still apologizing, saying he couldn’t be sure how many other times he may have darkened his face.
The racist photos and video are the latest scandal to plague Trudeau’s tenure, casting an uncomfortable shadow over his carefully honed image as a progressive politician with an inclusive, feminist agenda. This time, his troubles deepened just ahead of elections that will determine if he serves another term as prime minister.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, asked: “Who is the real Mr. Trudeau?”
“Is it the one behind closed doors, the one when the cameras are turned off that no one sees?” Singh, who is Sikh, asked. “Is that the real Mr. Trudeau? Because more and more, it seems like it is.”
In summer 2018, allegations resurfaced that Trudeau had groped a woman at a fundraiser in British Columbia in 2000. When confronted by a reporter in 2018, he initially denied memory of any “negative interactions,” the day of the festival. Later, he said he apologized to the woman at the time, standing by his assertion he does not believe he acted inappropriately.
“But I respect the fact that someone else might have experienced this differently,” he said.
Allegations of unethical behavior
Earlier this year, Trudeau and his staff faced allegations that they had pressured then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to make a deal with construction firm SNC-Lavalin, and then demoted her out of her high-profile role when she refused.
The Quebec-based firm was facing criminal conviction over allegations it had paid bribes to secure contracts with the government of Libya. Thousands of people work for the firm, and Quebec is Trudeau’s home province. Wilson-Raybould, Canada’s first indigenous attorney general, later testified that Trudeau had expressed concerns that if the firm was convicted and suspended from further government contracts, people would lose their jobs. He claimed she never came to him to express concerns she felt pressured to find a solution that wouldn’t result in the company losing contracts.
Still, in August, an ethics watchdog ruled that Trudeau had violated conflict-of-interest and ethics laws in the case. The finding did not include any fines or criminal proceedings for Trudeau.
“I recognize that this is a situation that shouldn’t have happened,” Trudeau said after the watchdog’s report was released. “But my desire to protect Canadians and at the same time, to protect the integrity and the independence of our judicial institutions, remained throughout.”
In 2017, Canada’s Ethics Commission found that Trudeau had violated country’s ethical code by vacationing with the Aga Khan at his home in the Bahamas. The Aga Khan, the title used for the imam of the Shiite Ismaili Muslims, is a wealthy benefactor and philanthropist.
“When Mr. Trudeau, as prime minister, accepted the gifts of hospitality from the Aga Khan and the use of his private island in March and December 2016, there were ongoing official dealings with the Aga Khan, and the Aga Khan Foundation Canada was registered to lobby his office,” then-Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson said in a report. “Therefore, the vacations accepted by Mr. Trudeau or his family could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau in his capacity as prime minister.”
Trudeau tried to excuse the misstep by saying that he didn’t consider it a work trip because he is “friends” with the Aga Khan. But the ethics commission determined the two did not have any significant contact until after Trudeau was named leader of the Liberal party in 2013.
Accusations of cultural appropriation and insensitivity
Amarnath Amarasingam, assistant professor at Queen’s University’s school of religion in Kingston, Ontario, said that in the United States and Europe, people “definitely romanticized Canada in general and Trudeau in particular.”
But even at home, where there was more skepticism of some of Trudeau’s policies and the awkward cultural gaffes that drew criticism, Trudeau was still seen as “a kind of young dynamic prime minister who’s saying all the right things when it comes to race and ethnicity,” Amarasingam said.
“We looked past a lot of that stuff,” he said. “It was seen as charming in a weird way."
Now, Amarasingam said, Trudeau will find himself in a strange position. “If it was just that one brownface photo, in a few days we might be talking about something else,” he said. “Now that the two more blackface images popped up, he’ll need to place this in some kind of context, as an individual or personal evolution or personal change.”
So far, that seems to be Trudeau’s approach.
“Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface,” he said in his second apology on Thursday. “I should have understood that then, and I shouldn’t have done it.”