Our Canadian about-face

I never thought I’d ever write a column about a Canadian Prime Minister wearing blackface, or brownface.

You probably have as little experience as I do with the term “brownface.” It wasn’t until the final moments before I wrote this column that I confirmed it as a form of makeup designed to make a person look Latin American, Middle Eastern, Polynesian, Indian, or Indigenous North American.

We all got “brownface” thrown in our own faces early in the second week of the federal election campaign, when multiple photos and video emerged of three instances between 1990 and 2001 of Justin Trudeau using dark face makeup in public places.

These included a performance of Harry Belafonte’s “Day-O [The Banana Boat Song]” at a high school variety show, and an Indian-prince costume for an “Arabian Nights” party at the Vancouver private school which had Trudeau on its teaching staff in the early 2000s.

Now, a disclaimer: I’m not here to defend the Prime Minister, or anyone else that ever did this type of thing. I remain amazed and appalled that blackface, brownface, or anything-face, would exist at this point in our history.

But it persists. This would be bad enough if it happened randomly, as it did in 2010 when two Montreal Canadiens fans showed up at a regular-season Bell Centre game in blackface, wearing “SUBBANATOR” signs, in what I can most charitably describe as a horribly-misguided tribute – if indeed it was a tribute at all – to then-rookie defenceman P.K. Subban.

But racially oriented face makeup also resurfaces on a disturbingly regular basis in broader pop culture. Robert Downey Jr. picked up an Oscar nomination in 2009 for playing a white Australian actor who insists on African-American makeup to take on a tough military role in the comedy Tropic Thunder. “I think it’s funny and entertaining, and if it’s done right it’s not offensive,” Downey said prior to the film’s release.

Around the same time period, two white men on opposite sides of the 49th parallel donned blackface to play then-President Barack Obama – Royal Canadian Air Farce’s Alan Park (who actually got a full-body treatment in 2008 to play Obama as a towel-wearing Old Spice pitchman), and more famously, Saturday Night Live’s Fred Armisen. By 2013, both men were replaced in the Obama role – Armisen by Jay Pharoah, and Park by Arnold Pinnock, and then Daryl Hinds. But the fact remains that CBC and NBC both had no issue with a Caucasian using blackface to portray a prominent African-American on national TV.

Small wonder, then, that Ryerson University associate professor Cheryl Thompson – who has spent the past 10 years researching Canadian blackface – recently suggested, in a Toronto Star opinion piece, that “blackface is Canadian as hockey” (was she at that Habs’ game?) and that “it literally was [is] performed everywhere.”

So, here we are. Despite all our efforts at cultural sensitivity, inclusiveness and diversity, we haven’t erased this shameful practice from our country or our world, and our Prime Minister – who prides himself on his progressive nature – is among the guilty parties.

And yet, as we pick up the pieces from all of this and try to determine whether it affects our vote in an already-fractious election campaign, something quite astonishing is happening in the early aftermath of this scandal: Canadians are showing a remarkable capacity for forgiveness.

A surprising number of those questioned on the issue seem to have accepted Trudeau’s public apologies, and they’re more willing than I expected to write these instances off as the mistakes of a young man born into privilege. Even Trudeau’s detractors – including Conservative-leaning friends of mine – are coming forward and insisting that mistakes made over two decades ago shouldn’t dictate a politician’s ability to serve all 36 million Canadians in 2019.

For the last word on this issue, I’ll turn to Samya Hassan, executive director of the Council of Agencies Serving South Asians. In a statement released last Thursday, Hassan announced that “I do believe the Prime Minister’s apology – not everyone is born woke” and discounted the Trudeau-closet-racist narrative emerging from media circles and political opponents.

“People should be… critically looking at the racism, oppression and hate that us brown, black and Indigenous people experience,” Hassan insisted. “Let’s stay focused on these issues, and if you want to be outraged on our behalf, please be outraged on the systemic oppressions we go through and the struggles we must put up with, every day of our lives.”

I can’t sit here and tell you whether this forgiving attitude is warranted or even acceptable. But I hope this difficult conversation helps us to come face-to-face with our own failures as a society, so we can finally make an about-face on practices that have tarnished our country – and, sadly, its leadership – for far too long.