The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Canada’s Trudeau is trying to change the subject from his blackface pictures. Is it working?

The Canadian prime minister faced a firestorm of criticism as images depicting him in racist makeup emerged in the media. Trudeau apologized for the acts. (Video: Reuters)

TORONTO — First came the pledge to ban and buy back “military-style assault rifles” and support municipalities in banning handguns.

Next: Tax relief for middle-class households, and a vow to slash cellphone bills. Then promises to introduce a national ­prescription drug plan, to ­commit Canada to net-zero carbon ­emissions by 2050, to teach every Canadian how to camp by grade 8.

On Friday, a meeting with climate activist Greta Thunberg — and a commitment to plant 2 billion trees.

In the week since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reelection campaign was jolted by revelations he wore racist makeup as a younger man, the Liberal leader has worked overtime to change the subject, unleashing a barrage of policy proposals.

“Their campaign is in full panic after dealing with these scandals and revelations about their corruption,” crowed Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, Trudeau’s chief rival. The Liberals, he said, were “literally just throwing ideas out the door.”

But is it working? Polls are mixed. Some show the Conservatives pulling ahead since the images emerged of Trudeau in brownface and blackface. Others suggest the Liberals suffered a brief dip in support but are now back in a statistical tie with the Conservatives. The vote is Oct. 21.

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Trudeau, 47, has apologized repeatedly for the incidents — a blackface performance of “The Banana Boat Song (Day-O)” when he was in high school, more blackface in a video from a costume day at the white water rafting operation where he worked in the early 1990s, and brownface at a party with an Arabian Nights theme in 2001. He has said he might have worn makeup on other occasions.

The images have threatened to tarnish Trudeau’s global image as a champion of progressive values, tolerance and inclusion. Trudeau, the son of former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, has said he was blinded by his privilege.

“I didn’t think it was racist at the time,” he told reporters in his first public comments after the first images emerged. “But now I recognize it was something racist to do.”

On Tuesday, he called New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, a Canadian Sikh of Indian heritage, to apologize. The center-left New Democrats stand to gain support from progressive voters disenchanted with Trudeau.

Trudeau and Singh have kept the contents of the call private. Singh said he didn’t “want to be used as a tool to exonerate” Trudeau. He wants to see a broader discussion about racism in Canada.

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Already, though, the controversy is fading from the debate. As Trudeau makes appearances and announcements across the country, reporters are asking more about the details of the policy proposals — often scant — than the racist images. What measures would a reelected Liberal government introduce to meet the 2050 targets? When would a national prescription drug plan be implemented? How much would it cost?

The specifics, the Liberal leader said, were to be determined. Which has opened him to a different line of criticism.

“One thing we’ve learned over the past couple of days is that Justin Trudeau is a master of improvisation,” Scheer said. “He’s proposing plans with no details. He’s making up policy on the fly.”

The Conservative leader is himself no stranger to criticism of proposals that lack specifics. But David Herle, a political consultant who has led Liberal election campaigns, said the announcements have been “a little unusually light on detail.”

“It seems that they were brought forward a little bit before they were ready,” he said.

The controversy doesn’t seem to have torpedoed Trudeau’s reelection bid. David Coletto, chief executive of the Ottawa-based polling firm Abacus Data, said the scandal “shocked the system,” leading people to reevaluate how they think of the prime minister. But it hasn’t knocked Trudeau out of the running, yet.

“How close this race is means that any mistake that any party makes between the Conservatives and the Liberals could determine the outcome,” he said. “So even if it costs them one or two points and that sustains itself, that could be the difference.”

The danger for Trudeau, he said, is that the New Democrats and the Green Party siphon away “free agent” voters who are unable to forgive Trudeau’s transgressions, or that the energized Liberal voters who helped Trudeau win in 2015 choose to sit this one out.

‘This thing is a wildfire’: Trudeau apologizes again as campaign reels from racist makeup revelations

In addition to the policy proposals, Trudeau is doubling down on an old tactic: tying Scheer and the Conservatives to Progressive Conservative Ontario Premier Doug Ford.

Ford, a populist who has drawn comparisons to President Trump, is deeply unpopular in the battleground province after lurching from scandal to scandal and imposing sweeping cuts to public services.

Ford extended the Ontario legislature’s summer break until after the federal election, a move that appeared to be aimed at helping Scheer. Federal elections in Canada are often won or lost in the suburbs outside of Toronto.

“On the campaign trail Doug Ford used to say he was for the people, but we all know too well what happened once he got into office,” Trudeau told supporters Wednesday in Thunder Bay. “He cut taxes for the rich and cut services for everybody else.”

Scheer’s Conservatives, he said, would do the same thing at the national level.

Ford and Trudeau are “two of the most resonant political brands in Canada,” said Lori Turnbull, a political scientist at Dalhousie University. She said that Trudeau is trying to exploit any “buyer’s remorse” that people in Ontario have around Ford.

According to a poll this week by the Angus Reid Institute, that buyer’s remorse is real. Four in 10 respondents said Ford’s performance in Ontario would deter them from voting for Scheer’s Conservatives in the federal election.

“Instead of getting people focused on the brownface and blackface photos,” Turnbull said, “Trudeau is asking voters in Ontario to say, ‘Yes, but if I don’t vote for Trudeau as prime minister, Doug Ford is going to have a blank slate and do whatever he wants.’ ”

Scheer embraced Ford after his election victory last year, but hasn’t appeared with him — or any other conservative premier, for that matter — during the campaign.

Third incident of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in racist makeup emerges

The makeup scandal catapulted Trudeau into international headlines for all the wrong reasons, making him a target for late-night talk show hosts and apparently shocking even Trump. The president, who last year tweeted that Trudeau was “dishonest” and “weak,” told reporters last week that he was “surprised” by the “number of times” he appeared in blackface.

Trudeau told Global News this week that he had not worn brownface or blackface since 2001, when he darkened his skin and donned a feathered turban at the Arabian Nights-themed fundraising gala when he taught at a private school in British Columbia.

If Trudeau survives the scandal, it wouldn’t be the first time. He earned worldwide ridicule for a diplomatically awkward trip to India and was rebuked by Canada’s ethics watchdog for a family vacation that broke conflict-of-interest laws. The resurfacing of an allegation that he groped a reporter at a music festival in 2000 also did little damage.

Then came allegations this year that he inappropriately pressured his attorney general to cut an out-of-court settlement with SNC-Lavalin, a Quebec-based construction giant facing bribery and corruption charges, and then demoted her when she refused.

The scandal led to several high-profile resignations from his government and sparked questions about his commitment to the transparency and “sunny ways” he promised. And weeks before the campaign kicked off, it earned him a second stinging rebuke from the ethics watchdog.

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