Trudeau faces friendly Saskatchewan crowd following discovery of blackface photos

Prime Minister and Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau speaks during a campaign rally turned town hall session in Saskatoon on Thursday, Sept. 19. -- Jason Kerr/Daily Herald

It only took three questions on Thursday for someone to ask Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about blackface.

Less than 48 hours after Time Magazine uncovered a photo showing the Canadian Prime Minister with his face, hands and neck painted black at an Arabian Nights themed gala in 2001, Trudeau was centre stage at a campaign rally turned town hall session in Saskatoon.

Flanked by supporters and Liberal Party candidates—including Estelle Hjertaas, the Liberal nominee in the electoral district of Prince Albert—Trudeau opened by asking for a respectful question and answer session from the standing-room-only crowd. After a query about a national action plan for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG), and another from a young girl asking what it was like to be a Prime Minister, Trudeau faced his first and only hostile interrogator of the evening.

“Earlier today, you were questioned about how many times you have appeared in blackface or brownface,” the questioner asked. “I’ll make it easy, is it possible to round to the nearest five?”

Time Magazine had only uncovered one photo on Wednesday, but Trudeau admitted to another during a press conference later in the day. The Prime Minister told reporters that he had dressed in blackface as part of a high school tribute to Jamaican-American singer, songwriter and activist Harry Belafonte.

Then on Thursday, Global News uncovered a third instance of Trudeau dressing in blackface, this time on video, however they don’t know the location or date it was taken.

Trudeau had already admitted during a media scrum that he made a serious mistake by dressing in blackface, and said so again at Thursday’s town hall.

“What I did was inexcusable and wrong and hurt a lot of people who considered me to be an ally. That is wrong, and I am deeply, deeply sorry,” Trudeau said. “There is no way to sugar coat it. It was something that I did wrong, and I take responsibility for it.”

That wasn’t good enough for at least one attendee, who called for Trudeau to give a number. The Prime Minister declined to do so and continued with his apology. He then reiterated his pledge to fight intolerance and racism.

“I also take responsibility for the fact that I lacked respect towards people who already faced tremendous discrimination, and that is something that I apologize for,” he finished.

Supporters and other town hall attendees were more than happy with Trudeau’s response. The fourth speaker told the Prime Minister “please do not apologize,” and added that he’d love to have Trudeau as a teacher. The fifth speaker, FSIN vice-chief David Pratt, told Trudeau there was “nothing to apologize for.”

Other questioners included a nun who thanked Trudeau for his honesty, a young women who asked what youth could do to work with the Prime Minister and be leaders in fixing global problems, and a professional photographer who jokingly asked if Trudeau would hire her before questioning him on his plans to help small businesses.

While Trudeau appreciated the comments, he reiterated that he was deeply sorry for his actions.

“There was no excusing what I did, and I’m sorry that I did it,” he said in response to the fourth speaker. “At the same time, yes, we do need to focus on how we move forward as a country on many, many big issues, but one of those issues is making sure that your leaders don’t hurt people who already face discrimination and marginalization in their daily lives.”

Indigenous concerns, like MMIWG, were the most common topic of discussion, but the environment was a close second. Trudeau touted his party’s ability to cooperate with and empower Indigenous communities, especially when it came to childcare and land claim settlements. He also vowed to support a recent Canadian Human Rights Commission ruling that awarded compensation to First Nations children, youth and families who were taken from their home communities and placed in state care.

When it came to the environment, Trudeau did not name Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe personally, but he did criticize conservative premiers across Canada for failing to adequately fight climate change. He also blasted Andrew Scheer and the federal Conservatives for their climate change policy.

“Unfortunately over the past few years, we have seen, from the rocky mountains to the Bay of Fundy, right across the country, conservative premiers get elected with promises to do less on fighting climate change, to do less in investing in a low carbon future, to do less about preparing people for the changes that are going to happen in our economy, in our energy,” Trudeau said. “That decision that Andrew Scheer is leading on, this desire to make pollution free again, is a real problem.”

Trudeau argued that the government’s pollution pricing strategy would give the average Canadian family of four a $600 annual rebate this year, which would outweigh any increased costs. He also said that the annual rebate would jump up to $900 in four years, and $1,500 by 2022.

The Prime Minister then criticized the previous Harper government for failing to lead on climate change and grow the economy, while urging young Canadians to demand better from their government.

Under the federal carbon tax, polluters in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, New Brunswick and Ontario will pay $20 per tonne of carbon dioxide released, increasing annually to $50 per tonne in 2022. The government believes the carbon tax will reduce emissions by 50-60 million tonnes by 2022

In April, government officials told the CBC that roughly 30 per cent of Canadian households would pay more in taxes than they received from the rebate, which they attributed to property owners heating large homes, or motorists driving inefficient vehicles.

The federal government has also said the carbon tax alone will not be enough to meet Canada’s carbon dioxide emission reduction targets of 17 per cent below 2005 levels by 2020, and 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030.

Trudeau took time to shake a few hands before leaving to a standing ovation from those in attendance.