Justin Trudeau’s campaign has moved to contain a growing scandal after a yearbook photo surfaced of the Canadian prime minister in “brownface” make-up at a 2001 Arabian Nights costume party and two other similar incidents came to light.
With the election a month away, he apologised and begged Canadians to forgive him.
Time magazine published the photo on Wednesday, saying it was taken from the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in British Columbia where Mr Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics.
It shows the then 29-year-old Mr Trudeau in a turban and robe with dark make-up on his hands, face and neck.
Mr Trudeau, who launched his re-election campaign a week ago, said he should have known better.
“I’m pissed off at myself. I’m disappointed in myself,” he told reporters on his campaign plane.
The photograph of Mr Trudeau was taken at the school’s annual dinner, which had an Arabian Nights theme that year, Mr Trudeau said, adding that he was dressed as a character from Aladdin.
The prime minister said it was not the first time he darkened his face. He said he once did it while performing a version of Harry Belafonte’s Banana Boat Song (Day-O) during a talent show.
“I should have known better then, but I didn’t, and I am deeply sorry for it,” Mr Trudeau said. “I’m going to ask Canadians to forgive me for what I did. I shouldn’t have done that. I take responsibility for it. It was a dumb thing to do.”
Global News also reported on a third instance, broadcasting a brief video of Mr Trudeau in blackface while raising his hands in the air and sticking out his tongue.
A spokeswoman for Mr Trudeau’s Liberal Party said the footage was from the early 1990s. The Canadian TV network said it was not clear where the tape was made.
Mr Trudeau said he was “wary” of ruling out the existence of even more instances because he could not remember those that already come to light. Answering questions from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Mr Trudeau said that his privilege as the white son of former prime minister Pierre Trudeau had come with a “blindspot”.
“I come from a place of privilege and I have endeavoured in my life to put the advantages and opportunities I’ve been given to serve this country, to fight for people’s rights,” he said. “I have to recognise that I’ve let a lot of people down with that choice [to wear blackface] and I stand there today to reflect on that and to ask forgiveness.”
It could all spell more trouble for Mr Trudeau, who polls say is facing a serious challenge on October 21st from Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
“What Canadians saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to govern this country,” Mr Scheer said.
Mr Trudeau champions diversity, multiculturalism and immigration and has been admired by liberals around the world for his policies, with Canada accepting more refugees than the US. His government has also strongly advocated free trade and has legalised cannabis.
But the 47-year-old was already vulnerable following one of the biggest scandals in Canadian political history, which arose when Mr Trudeau’s former attorney general said he improperly pressured her to halt the prosecution of a company in Quebec.
Mr Trudeau has said he was standing up for jobs, but the scandal rocked the government and led to resignations and a drop in his ratings earlier this year.
His quick apology did not stem the criticism from political opponents.
“I am deeply troubled by what this means to Canada. Young kids are not just going to see just one or two but multiple images of the prime minister mocking their lived reality,” said Leftist New Democrat leader Jagmeet Singh, who is a Sikh.
“This is so hurtful to so many Canadians.”
Robert Bothwell, a professor of Canadian history and international relations at the University of Toronto, said he was “gobsmacked” by the development.
“We’ll just have to see how the party reacts,” he said. “I’m very curious to know how Liberal members of parliament that are black will react.”
He added: “The case has never been conclusively made that Justin is a person of substance. I mean, he may well be. But that impression is just not out there.” – AP/Reuters