- - Thursday, September 19, 2019

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was in full backpedaling mode Thursday as his carefully curated liberal image — and his reelection hopes next month — were rocked for a second day with the surfacing of more images from his youth performing in “brownface” makeup for a fundraiser.

A chastened and subdued Mr. Trudeau told reporters he deeply regrets his past behavior, but the shock of this scandal has damaged his political brand and opposition leaders are hammering him for both racial insensitivity and political hypocrisy.

Speaking to reporters in the western Canadian city of Winnipeg, Mr. Trudeau apologized again.

“Darkening your face, regardless of the context and circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface. I should have understood that then,” he said. Standing in a small park, Mr. Trudeau appeared in rolled up shirtsleeves as he addressed the controversy that has consumed his campaign for the past 24 hours.

“The layers of privilege that I have” from growing up wealthy, white and famous, kept him from seeing the pain he caused, Mr. Trudeau added as a few people gathered in the park applauded.

Admitting he had let his own supporters down, Mr. Trudeau added, “I stand here today to reflect on that and ask for forgiveness.”

It’s been a spectacular comeuppance for the 47-year-old prime minister, the son of another glamorous Canadian prime minister who came to power four years ago with a “woke” reputation as an outspoken champion of gender equality, minority rights and liberal values. It’s also a spectacularly bad two-day stretch for Mr. Trudeau as he enters what was already a difficult election campaign against the energized Conservative Party opposition.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, who is running even with Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party in the most recent polls, said he was “shocked” by the first pictures, but he was even more concerned by Mr. Trudeau’s “lie” that there were no other incidents of racial mockery.

This week’s revelations show Mr. Trudeau “has one set of rules for himself and one set of rules for the rest of us,” Mr. Scheer said.

Mr. Trudeau’s fellow Liberals condemned the racist images, but there was no immediate sign they were abandoning their standard-bearer, who led them back to power in 2015 after a decade of Conservative Party government.

Mitzie Hunter, a Liberal who is running to lead the party in Ontario and is black, tweeted: “I know it is not representative of the man he is. This is a teachable moment for all of us. I accept his apology and I hope Canadians do, too.”

Racial parody

On Wednesday, images of a 29-year-old Mr. Trudeau dressed as a Disney version of Aladdin — in a turban and dark-brown face makeup — were splashed across the international media. At the time, Mr. Trudeau was a drama teacher at a private school in Vancouver and he costumed himself for an “Arabian Nights”-themed fundraiser.

Mr. Trudeau apologized and said that was his only time indulging in racial parody. But the next day, a video was released showing him in a high school talent show wearing blackface and singing the Caribbean song “Day O.”

Jagmeet Singh leads Canada’s left-wing New Democratic Party. The son of immigrants from the Punjab state of India, Mr. Singh said the pictures of Mr. Trudeau in racial makeup hurt a lot of Canadians.

Many people, Mr. Singh noted, have been treated differently, faced insults and physical violence because of the way they look.

“And then to see the prime minister making light of that,” he added. “How would someone feel living in this country? I can tell you that it hurts.”

Mr. Singh added he doesn’t know if he can look at Mr. Trudeau “in the eye” when the leaders meet for their first televised debates next month ahead of the Oct. 21 vote.

Pollster Joseph Angolano, vice president of Public Opinion and Analytics at Toronto’s Mainstreet Research, said Thursday that Mr. Trudeau faces a “significant challenge” in the fallout from this week’s disclosures.

“It’s the first time a Canadian leader has been accused — on the national and international stage — of racism, and it’s happening to a leader who is known as a champion of progressive values. It’s surreal,” said Mr. Angolano.

This scandal hurts the Liberal Party leader because it reminds people of “the other side of Justin Trudeau — the one who says he’s a feminist and supports aboriginal rights, but when his authority was challenged by the two most powerful women in his cabinet” — including the first aboriginal woman to be justice minister — he fired them, Dr. Angolano added, referring to the scandal over alleged favoritism for a major Quebec engineering firm that shook Mr. Trudeau’s government earlier this year.

But Renu Mehta, CEO of ImagebuilderZ Public Relations in Toronto, said it was unlikely the images taken nearly two decades ago would make a significant dent in Mr. Trudeau’s political support.

Despite Mr. Trudeau’s evident contrition, what he did was “in no way racist,” Ms. Mehta argued. “He’s not making fun of anyone. It’s just a talent show. We all do these things when we’re growing up.”

In the United States, Virginia Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam faced a media firestorm and calls to resign earlier this year when photos from an old medical school yearbook appeared to show him in blackface. Mr. Northam weathered the controversy, but did not have to face the voters barely a month after the scandal broke.

Nik Nanos, president of Ottawa-based Nanos Research, said this is damaging to Mr. Trudeau’s brand but it’s unclear whether it will change votes.

Canadians need a reason to vote for someone, and while this scandal could damage Mr. Trudeau’s personal reputation, it’s not a reason for Liberal voters to defect to the conservative opposition, pollsters say.

If the opposition can keep this issue alive it could hurt Mr. Trudeau at the polls, Mr. Angolano said. But if Canadians accept his apology as sincere then Mr. Trudeau might even pick up some sympathy votes if the attacks are seen as political.

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