Oh no Justin, how could you? At the end of the first week of the Canadian election campaign, the alleged boy wonder of North American progressivism and the country’s Liberal leader and prime minister, was revealed to have painted his face, to have ‘brown-faced’, for a school gala version of the Arabian Nights. Not, however, when he was attending school but when he was teaching at one. This was 2001, and he was 29! But just to prove that he hadn’t learned much, within hours of the first photo coming to light, another from his actual pupil days hit social media, again showing Trudeau’s with a painted face, this time wearing an Afro wig rather than a turban.
He of course made the expected apologies – well, he would, wouldn’t he – acknowledged that what he did was stupid and ‘racist’, and now waits to see what the electoral gods have to say. Thing is, while this may all come as a profound surprise outside of Canada, within the country the reaction is one of surprise but not total incredulity.
In Europe and the United States, there exists the inevitable juxtaposition with Donald Trump, and that of course always depicts Trudeau in the positive. Justin is handsome, fluently bilingual, suave, and apparently enlightened. But just as, for example, Mrs Thatcher was often far more popular and even revered abroad than in Britain, proximity has not served the Liberal leader well. There was certainly a time when the son of the genuinely charismatic and intellectually vibrant former prime minister Pierre Trudeau could seemingly do no wrong. He courted the media, and was loved in return. Indeed the symbiosis of that relationship was deeply worrying, especially in a country that is often far too respectful of its politicians, and lacks a biting satirical tradition.
That love affair changed radically midway through Trudeau’s four years in office, and the truth is that while he has been cosmetically forward-thinking, said the right things, and evinced empathy and compassion, he has governed very much from the center. If anything, he’s bland. He has done nothing like enough for Canada’s First Nations people – an open would in this generally comfortable and stable country; he’s continued to sell arms to Saudi Arabia; made the right noises about the environment but generally allowed the damage to continue; and he’s cozied up to big business just as the Liberals, the natural party of government, usually do.
Earlier this year, his reputation took a major hit when he became involved in the SNC-Lavalin affair, where two senior women ministers resigned from the cabinet, and Trudeau was accused of severely blurring the separation of powers, and trying to influence the judiciary to go easy on a major Quebec-based company accused of corruption and fraud. The prime minister says he was trying to avoid a court case so as to save Canadian jobs. His critics say that he was helping good and powerful friends.
His obvious qualities aside, Trudeau is the ordinary packaged as the extraordinary, and Canadians are increasingly concluding that this emperor, or son of one, while not completely naked is hardly well-dressed.
What has saved him so far, and may continue to do so, is that his main opponent, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer, often appears inept and out of his depth. He only won his party’s leadership on the 13th ballot, and was very much the second choice of the majority. Those who know him describe a quintessentially decent man, but as the election campaign has developed, he rather resembles an elk caught in the headlights. A case-in-point is a video promoted by the Liberals showing this traditional Roman Catholic, who refuses to attend Pride parades, making a speech in the House of Commons back in 2005. He dismisses same-sex marriage and asks rhetorically, ‘How many legs would a dog have if you counted the tail as a leg? The answer is just four. Just because you call a tail a leg doesn’t make it a leg.’ It’s actually an old Abraham Lincoln metaphor, but certainly offensive to modern sensibilities.
It’s likely that Scheer still rejects equal marriage, but is probably telling the truth when he says that if elected he wouldn’t re-open the debate. But when challenged on his speech from 14 years ago, he could only stumble and stare. He could, and should, have said that while his personal views were precisely that, he now rejected the language he had used, which was far from unique back then, but jarring in hindsight. Canadians, of whatever opinion, would have considered him honest yet tough.
The irony in all this is that Canada’s third party, the semi-socialist New Democratic party, which often forms provincial governments and has sometimes if briefly been the federal opposition, is led by someone who know more about most of these issues than either Scheer or Trudeau. Jagmeet Singh is a turban-wearing Sikh, and arguably the most honest political leader of the bunch. His shock and pain at the Trudeau photo was palpable, because this man has lived the results of brown face caricatures all of his life. He won’t win the election though, and won’t be prime minister. Because Justin Trudeau, for all of his faux radicalism and tone-deaf behavior, is still the man to beat.