The United States and Canada have always had a great deal in common, from our shared values of democracy and free expression to the side of the road we drive on. Now, however, we share a much more somber parallel: both nations’ heads of state stand accused of overt racism.
Americans and Canadians alike erupted in cries of denunciation upon the release of photographs featuring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in racist makeup. But now, nearly two weeks and several apologies later, it’s time to move on. Let’s stop wasting our energy “canceling” Trudeau on Twitter and let Canadians use the best tool of political participation available to decide his fate: the voting booth.
On Sept. 18, 2019, Time magazine published a photo of Trudeau wearing brown-colored makeup, known as brownface, at an “Arabian Nights”-themed party while he was a private school teacher in 2001. Soon after Trudeau apologized, he also admitted to wearing blackface in high school to sing the Harry Belafonte song “Day-O.” On Sept. 19 and yet again on Sept. 29, videos featuring him gesticulating wildly in full blackface appeared on the internet. Perhaps most damning of all, however, was Trudeau’s eventual admission that he has no idea how many other times he had made a racist caricature out of himself.
The backlash against the erstwhile poster child for Canadian inclusivity has been brutal. His current reelection campaign looks to be in real danger; elected officials across the political spectrum are baying for his blood. If anything, the general public’s response has been harsher still.
As citizens of a nation that’s increasingly aware of ethnic and racial concerns, we Americans have a duty to, in the words of former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson, “root out injustice wherever it exists.” An equal society requires equal contribution to the common good, and when faced with blatantly public prejudice, we must do our part by highlighting the problem, considering its causes and taking corresponding action.
There can be no doubt whatsoever as to whether Trudeau’s use of blackface and brownface constituted injustice. Since the minstrel shows of the mid-19th century, blackface has been unimaginably demeaning to minorities throughout the U.S., Canada and beyond. White stage actors used burnt-cork masks and polish to darken their skin and accentuate other features in order to appear stereotypically black, and in the process, portrayed black people as indolent, promiscuous, unintelligent and worse. To wear blackface today is to recall that cruel, racist mockery; it is itself overtly discriminatory and worthy of bitter denunciation.
That said, we must be cognizant of the distinction between unjust acts and unjust people. While Trudeau’s use of racist makeup deserves the condemnation that it has received, the man himself has been a champion of inclusivity and diversity for years. Throughout his current term in office, he has formed Canada’s first gender-balanced federal cabinet, welcomed tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and made several laudable commitments to advocate for the rights of Canada’s First Nations peoples.
Trudeau’s administration has not been without the occasional civil rights failure, however. Most notably, he has spent months pushing for an oil pipeline passing through indigenous lands, and recent shifts in public opinion may soon force him to retreat from his position on asylum seekers. But these are exceptions to the norm; Trudeau has generally fought for inclusivity with remarkable determination.
His record is far from perfect, but managing conflicting domestic interests is simply a part of his job description. Trudeau has accomplished and will likely continue to accomplish a great deal for civil rights causes, and any judgment of his ability to represent Canadians’ values of diversity and multiculturalism must include his recent accomplishments in government alongside his past indiscretions as a private citizen.
Americans confronted a similar scandal not too long ago. On Feb. 1, 2019, Big League Politics reported a 1984 yearbook photo allegedly featuring Democratic Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam either wearing blackface or dressed in Ku Klux Klan-style robes. Northam dealt with a firestorm of criticism from both sides of the political aisle for weeks afterward, but eventually, successive news cycles shifted away from the story and the public moved on. Now, nearly eight months later, Northam has a net positive approval rating, which begs the question: why expend so much energy in an effort to “cancel” a government official when the damage to the target eventually fades regardless?
Instead of judging Trudeau and other public servants on the basis of ill-conceived, decades-old actions, we as citizens owe it to ourselves to judge their fitness for office based on all the information available to us. The best way to determine whether someone can govern in accordance with your values is to consider how they’ve governed in the past, the sum total of their words and actions and how they respond to their scandals. When former U.S. President John F. Kennedy had to face the nation after the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, he did not invent excuses or hide behind bluster — he explained what had happened honestly and left it at that. Trudeau acted in much the same way, apologizing profusely and with authentic humility. Such leadership deserves, at the very least, an honest chance in the public arena.
As Martin Luther King Jr. warned, “the day we see the truth and cease to speak is the day we begin to die.” But we have already spoken. Our obligation to highlight unjust acts and initiate a trial in the court of public opinion is fulfilled — so instead of wasting our time in an effort to “cancel” Justin Trudeau, let’s focus on our election and let the Canadians focus on theirs.
Ben Thomas (23C) is from Dayton, Ohio.