Justin Trudeau admits 2001 brownface photo was 'racist'

The Canadian prime minister was a teacher at the school that hosted the party.

September 19, 2019, 5:14 AM

A 2001 photograph of Justin Trudeau wearing brownface makeup at a private school dinner party has surfaced online just after the Canadian prime minister launched a reelection campaign in the wake of one of the nation's biggest political scandals.

"I can confirm it is him," Zita Astravas, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party of Canada, told ABC News in a statement on Wednesday. "It was a photo taken in 2001 while he was teaching in Vancouver, at the school's annual dinner which had a costume theme of 'Arabian Nights.' He attended with friends and colleagues dressed as a character from Aladdin."

The photo was first published, along with an article, by Time Magazine.

"I should have known better, but I didn't," Trudeau told reporters later Wednesday night. "I deeply regret that I did that. I should have known better."

"I didn't think it was a racist action at the time," he added, "but now we know better, and this was something that was unacceptable and, yes, racist."

PHOTO: Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigns at federal liberal candidate Lenore Zann's office for the upcoming election in Truro, Nova Scotia, Sept. 18, 2019.
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigns at federal liberal candidate Lenore Zann's office for the upcoming election in Truro, Nova Scotia, Sept. 18, 2019.
John Morris/Reuters

According to Time, which obtained a copy of the 2000-2001 West Point Grey Academy yearbook in which the photo appears, Trudeau, then 29, was an instructor at the school. He taught classes, including French, until he left after the spring 2001 term.

The photograph shows the prime minister wearing a turban, robes and with his hands, neck and face covered in dark makeup. Others at the event seen in different costumes in different photographs did not appear to have darkened their skin with makeup, Time reported.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, whose party holds the second-highest number of seats in the House of Common, gave a brief on-camera statement, saying Trudeau "was not fit to govern."

"Like all Canadians, I was extremely shocked and disappointed when I learned of Justin Trudeau's actions this evening," Scheer said. "Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019.

Other politicians have had similarly regretful photographs surface recently.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey apologized earlier this year for wearing blackface while doing a skit while at Auburn University.

Likewise, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam refused to resign after first apologizing for, and then denying he was in, a 1984 yearbook photo depicting one man in blackface and another wearing a Ku Klux Klan hood.

Shama Rangwala, a faculty lecturer at the University of Alberta, said that Trudeau is now facing similar backlash.

"Canadians like to be pretty smug about being nice, and everybody gets along, and Canadians like to differentiate themselves from the U.S.," Rangwala told ABC News' "Start Here" podcast. "So when this Ralph Northam [news] came out, of course Canadians were all like, ‘Nothing like that would ever happen here.’ And now it's this huge, huge scandal here. I think that Canadian Liberals who have this, you know, mythologized, idealized version of Canada are really feeling their world shaken by this."

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