In the summer of 1952, the Holy Family Parish of Toronto prepared for the 50th-anniversary celebration of the church’s establishment. The nuns decided this event necessitated a performance—the local elementary school’s fifth-grade class would emulate a blackface minstrel show. Reveling in the opening night excitement, the students settled in front of mirrors, lathering obsidian shoe polish across their fair cheeks and foreheads. The children assembled their wigs, crafted from the nun’s stocking to look like skull caps, and promptly gathered on the church basement’s stage. The evening of performance was met with applause from a homogeneously Euro-Canadian audience of proud family members. And after a long day, the students scrubbed the polish from their faces, restoring their alabaster complexions. The stain of Blackness that resided upon their cheeks was removed after a few minutes, but the stain on Black Canadian history would only grow more permanent. 

Cultural appropriation as entertainment was not a new phenomenon in 1950s Canada, nor was it threatened with extinction by popularizing a progressive national dialogue. Canada’s long-standing tradition of minstrel shows, dating back to 1841, has continued into the 21st century. In 2001, The West Point Grey Academy, a private Vancouver high school, hosted an Arabian Nights-themed costume party. One teacher in particular memorialized the night with a picture in the yearbook featuring an Aladdin costume finished off with incredibly dark brownface makeup. This teacher, to the shock and dismay of millions of Canadians today, was a 29-year-old Justin Trudeau.

Nearly 20 years later, while confronting the incident with an outflux of apologies, Trudeau admitted to having worn black and brownface in multiple instances. Trudeau’s transgressions brought to light the incongruity between Canada’s international image as a pillar of progress and its overt displays of racism. 

The Prime Minister’s brownface scandal was revealed in the midst of his 2019 reelection campaign, a time when Canada was already grappling with issues of cultural representation. In June 2019, the Coalition Avenir Québec government promoted Bill 21, an effort by the Parti Québécois to secularize the public sector by eradicating religious symbolism. This bill banned teachers, public officials, police officers, and other government employees from wearing religious regalia while on duty, such as hijabs, turbans, kippas, and crucifixes. 

The bill was met with an array of responses, notably inciting panic from Québec’s Muslim population. Two years prior, the Québec City mosque had experienced the most tragic mass murder to take place in a house of worship in Canadian history, which left six worshipers dead and 19 others injured after evening prayers. According to Statistics Canada, hate crimes on the basis of race and religion increased by 43 percent in 2017. Canadian law enforcement reports that the increase in hate crimes from 1,409 in 2016 to 2,073 in 2017 has targeted primarily Muslim, Jewish, and Black populations.

 When intolerance of other cultures is displayed so pervasively across a nation, one must consider if the vestiges of past injustices continue to breed present suffering. Hate crimes targeted towards Muslim, Jewish, and Black populations did not appear out of thin air; rather, this recurring discrimination is a manifestation of historical inequalities. Mending systemic oppression requires that citizens are educated about the nation’s factual history: its achievements, struggles, and embarrassments. If we fail to acquaint ourselves with history, we are unable to recognize the rotting foundations of our institutions—institutions that exude intolerance because they were established on historical inequalities. When Canadian students are asked about their familiarity with Canada’s history of slavery, students expound that the sensitive topic is simply ignored in the classroom. 

Kevin Li ‘23, spoke of the lack of cultural awareness promoted by his high school in Vancouver, stating, “We never addressed slavery in school. Most of our studies on systemic racism focused on the First Nations. Canadians don’t even talk about race that much in politics, they are mostly concerned with climate change, domestic policy, and foreign relations.” 

Although the historic and present-day struggles of Canada’s First Nations deserve even more recognition in the Canadian curriculum than they currently receive, this does not mean that Black Canadian history should be overlooked. After all, Canada enslaved Africans for over 200 years

However, perhaps educational failures should not bear the entirety of the blame in regards to addressing racism. In America, slavery is an inextricable aspect of the nation’s history, having been legal for 256 years and abolished for 154 years. With no doubt, education about slavery is riddled with prejudice and fallacies—teachers often refer to slaves as “workers,” students are asked to explain the “positive” aspects of slavery, and some classrooms even hold mock auctions to illustrate the vile system. Nevertheless, unlike Canada, the enslavement of Africans is mentioned in the classroom. Still, American public officials often engage in acts of racism similar to those of Trudeau.

In February 2019, Democratic Governor of Virginia Ralph Northam was identified in a 1981 Virginia Military Institute yearbook photograph—which depicts him in full blackface standing next to a hooded klansman. Northam’s racial callousness is disconsonant with his record of rectifying Virginia’s discriminatory legislation. In 2018, Northam helped pass House Bill 883, also known as the regulatory reduction pilot program, which addressed occupational licensing and criminal justice regulations. The bill decreased the bureaucratic barriers hindering individuals seeking reliable jobs, barriers that target minorities and increase recidivism among formerly incarcerated persons. Similarly, in 2019, Northam signed an executive order that established a commission to examine racial inequalities in Virginia laws. The commission went on to identify 100 antiquated laws that preserved systemic racism and suggested that they be discarded.  

Upon hearing about Northam’s past experience with blackface, Virginia’s Democratic population was faced with a dilemma: whether or not to call for Northam’s resignation. Constituents had to weigh the cost of defaming Northam’s behavior against having the seat filled by Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax or Attorney General Mark Herring, the next-in-lines to the governorship.

Virginia’s gubernatorial line of succession, however, was concurrently facing a cascade of accusations. In February 2019, Venessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College, accused Fairfax of sexually assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. A day after Tyson’s allegations, a second woman named Meredith Watson came forward, testifying that Fairfax raped her in 2000 while she was a student at Duke University. In the same month, Herring, too, was implicated in an incident of racial insensitivity. Paralleling Trudeau’s use of cultural appropriation as entertainment, Herring was pictured in blackface, impersonating a rapper, while attending an undergraduate college party in 1980. 

The decision to remove Northam from office quickly turned into a trilemma for Virginia’s Democrats. According to a Quinnipiac University poll, 33 percent of Democrats, 60 percent of Republicans, and 43 percent of independents supported Northam’s resignation. However, 56 percent of Black voters claimed that Northam should not step down. Perplexingly, the population to which the incident bears the majority of the offense was less in favor of removal than Republicans, a party that is arguably known for racial discrimination. This disparity raises a common question: to what extent are we willing to sacrifice our moral beliefs of right and wrong for the good of the party to which we subscribe? 

Commenting on the aforementioned predicament, postdoctoral associate Brendan Shanahan, who currently teaches a seminar about representative politics in the United States and Canada at Yale, explains:

“In the Northam scandal, particularly, African-American legislators in Virginia faced this dilemma: How can one condone that behavior? Surely, a demand for resignation is merited, but if that were to produce a governor of an opposing party—at a time when the legislature is going to be redistricting, sacrificing the possibility to finally empower a fairer system of representation in Virginia, that’s a high cost. The cost to not remove Northam is also high. It’s saying that his behavior does not meet the bar of expulsion from the highest office in the state of Virginia.”

Indeed, many of Virginia’s Democratic voters had to ask themselves if it is worthwhile to sacrifice Northam’s progressive policy goals to hold him accountable for blackface. However, other constituents considered a different cost—removing Democrats from office could increase President Trump’s chances of winning the upcoming 2020 election. If all three Democrats were removed from office, their seats could potentially be filled by Republicans. This would increase Republican fervor in Virginia and subsequently bolster support for Trump. 

When asked about removing the three Democrats from office versus increasing Trump’s reappointment prospects, Beth Widrow, a Democratic resident of Springfield, Virginia, commented, “If you had asked me this before Trump got elected, I would have said absolutely go with your morality, but with Trump in office, we need all the help we can get to get him out. And that means having Democrats in office… I would do whatever it takes to make sure Trump doesn’t get reelected.”

Canadians faced a parallel quandary when they learned of their Prime Minister’s indulgence in black and brownface. With the impending 2019 Canadian federal election, citizens reacted to Trudeau’s incident with the knowledge that their opinions could potentially sway the election. Canada’s major parliamentary parties, the Liberal Party, the Conservative party, the New Democratic Party, and the Bloc Québecois each had contrasting, politically strategic responses to Trudeau. 

Similar to the Virginia Republican party’s response to Northam, Canada’s Conservative Party took the opportunity to claim that the Prime Minister’s blackface controversy left him unfit for office. During the October 2019 election debate, the leader of the Conservative Party, Andrew Scheer, was asked to respond to a question about protecting Canadian values on the global stage. Instead, Scheer immediately mentioned Trudeau’s history of wearing blackface, pointedly asserting, “Mr. Trudeau, you’re a phony and you’re a fraud and you do not deserve to govern this country.”

The Bloc Québecois took a more neutral stance, explaining that Trudeau’s actions were certainly wrong but forgivable. In an interview with The Canadian Press, Pascal Bérubé, the Bloc’s leader, commented, “[Our party] can be against him on many issues, but he’s not a racist. His lack of judgement back in 2001 is real. His lack of judgement right now on important issues for Canadians and Québecers is true, but he’s certainly not a racist. Please stop.” 

Here, the Bloc Québecois seems to contradict itself in that their adamant secularism bars citizens from expressing cultural identity; however, they find the appropriation of cultural identities to be pardonable.  

But it was members of Trudeau’s Liberal Party who proved to be the most lenient towards his transgressions. 

During an interview with Toronto online radio station GBKM FM, Judy Sgro, a Liberal Canadian MP, incorrectly argued that Trudeau’s instance of blackface increased his popularity among Black constituents, stating, “Those in the Black community have told of how much more love they have for the Prime Minister. That he wanted to have a blackface. That he took great pride in that, too.” Again we see the discordance between the party’s advocating for progressive reforms and their quasi-tolerance of a high-caliber offense. 

Conversely, Jagmeet Singh, leader of the New Democratic Party, took the opportunity to raise awareness about Canada’s contention with cultural representation. Rather than simply reprimanding or forgiving Trudeau, Singh spoke of concrete legislative reforms that must take place before Canada can claim nationwide progressivism. 

In an interview with CBS radio, Singh declared that “this ongoing behavior is backed up with policies that continue to hurt people…. It’s a real problem. It’s something that we’ve got a chance to talk about across this country. There’s a history of it. It’s not something that happened yesterday.” Here, Singh emphasizes that racial intolerance has been ingrained in Canada’s institutions for centuries. 

Although an act of racism is in itself transient, its consequences serve to fortify a system of mass oppression against minority communities. By pardoning racist incidents, we lower the precedent for behavior among our political leaders. We show our nation’s children—the future of our institutions and national politics—that they will not be held accountable for their wrongdoing. We let electoral processes diminish our moral compasses. Ultimately, one must choose if it is worth a piece of their conscience to further their political views.

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