There is a lot of intense chatter about just how many votes Justin Trudeau’s “brown face” and “black face” photos will cost his Liberal party in the upcoming federal election. Those discussions, while interesting for pundits, seem almost beside the point.
The point, actually, is the cost on his stature with Canadians, with the world community, and with him personally and his family. At the very least, his carefully cultivated illusion of a squeaky clean icon of progressive thinking is irrevocably shattered.
It is not an exaggeration in the least to describe these images as shocking. The mind needs time to fully digest the underlying messages they convey. They tell a story about this country’s leader that is not only off-side with how we wish our nation to be known to the world, but also deeply troubling in what they say about Trudeau’s judgment.
Judgment. We’ve worried about it before. The niggling problem with the SNC Lavalin affair wasn’t so much that he pressured his attorney general – no surprise there, that’s how politics is done – but that he mucked it up. Somehow, he managed to make Jody Wilson-Raybould feel threatened, and then he bounced her from cabinet in a move that looked like retribution for her failing to come to heel. One can’t help but think back to that tough old veteran Jean Chretien and wonder how he would have handled such a situation.
The images raise many other questions, too. Here are a few.
Why did he never tell the party those images existed?
Parties are supposed to vet their candidates thoroughly, and especially their leaders. How thorough is that vetting if a yearbook photo went unnoticed for 18 years? And why, more importantly, did Trudeau not tell the party about this skeleton in the closet? Did he not think they were noteworthy? Why is he only sorry now? Was he not sorry before the images were discovered? If you’re only sorry when the photos are made public, are you sorry about what you did or sorry that you got caught?
Would he seriously consider stepping down?
I know, I know. It’s the middle of an election campaign. A resignation now would amount to conceding electoral defeat. Like it or not, the Liberal Party has to stick with its leader until the voters render their verdict. Fair enough. But where is honour in all this? Has the idea of stepping aside even crossed his mind? Or is he determined to hang on to the job, no matter what?
How can he possibly regain the trust of visible minorities?
As white folks (that’s my real face in the photo byline), a lot of us just can’t imagine the psychological impact of long-term systemic racism. I have read and been told that it undermines self-confidence and makes people feel as though they belong to a lower caste. It is debilitating.
And just when you think you have a multicultural hero at the helm, your hopes are dashed. As The Who sang lo those many years ago, Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Once trust is broken, it will be profoundly difficult to restore it. The images will always there. Trudeau is forever the wolf in sheep’s clothing. There is nothing he can say – no faux sincere facial expression – that can erase those images.
OK, just out of idle curiosity, what will he say to the kids?
It always comes as a shock to children to learn their parents are less than perfect. How will Trudeau prepare his family for potential school yard ridicule?
And, of course, why did these photos come out now?
Well, we know the answer to that. These photos were made public during the election campaign for strategic reasons by those who want to bring Trudeau and the Liberals down. The images will be top of mind with voters as they enter the polling booth. Trudeau will be knocked off his script for quite possibly the rest of the campaign.
Can we ever trust this guy again?
As one anonymous commentator wrote today, “The real issue is not that Trudeau is a racist. The real issue that he’s a charlatan.” You can see it in his haughty grin. There’s a hint of the old man’s arrogance in this Trudeau – as though he tells you what he wants you to know, and nothing more. One message for Quebec, and another for English Canada; one message for the environmentalists, and another for the oil patch. What does he really believe? What does he really stand for?
You would think the opposition would make a killing from this opportunity. The polls will tell us that soon enough. But the initial comments from the Conservative leader Andrew Scheer once again disappointed. His declaration that Trudeau is unfit to lead was a nakedly obvious attempt exploit this opportunity, and I predict he will suffer from his graceless choice of words.
I personally was more deeply moved by the NDP’s Jagmeet Singh, who spoke first about the impact that these photos would have on people of colour, and his appeal to them to not give up on Canada. Because, lest we forget, the victim of the photos wasn’t Trudeau or the party he leads; the victims were people of colour.
Certainly, the Liberals have lost the moral high ground that appeared to be the core of their election strategy. Photo ops with ultra-right Faith Goldy have nothing on blackface Trudeau. At the very least, the two leading parties are even on that very low moral score. And that leaves the Liberal campaign in tatters.
Just this week, I again had several conversations with others about why “the right people” don’t go into politics. In part, it’s because every misdeed from your past is likely to end up in public view. Some of our best people are just not prepared to endure such scrutiny.
But for those who are willing to enter the vicious political fray, there can only be one way to do it: full disclosure of your past and complete transparency. As Trudeau has learned, keeping dirty little secrets in the closet can end up biting you in the ass at the worse possible moments.