Poor judgment but not a racist: Quebec's political class weighs in on Trudeau brownface

MONTREAL — Quebec's political class largely condemned Justin Trudeau's brownface and blackface episodes Thursday, but usual political opponents sprung to the Liberal leader's defence against allegations of racism.

Interim Parti Quebecois Leader Pascal Berube called Trudeau's actions an error in judgment, but also pointed to his track record on inclusiveness and diversity.

"It's a very bad idea in any circumstance .... Since he became prime minister, Mr. Trudeau often shows poor judgment," Berube said. "It's not appropriate. There's never a good context. I'm uncomfortable with it, and always have been."

But he said it doesn't make Trudeau racist.

"It's an error in judgment, because his life is testament to the fight against racism," he said. "I think we can be political adversaries and recognize there's no reason to believe he is (racist), so I believe him."

Bloc Quebecois leader Yves-Francois Blanchet, in his own way, also defended the Liberal leader in comments Wednesday night.

"Justin Trudeau has all the flaws in the world," Blanchet said. "He's certainly not a great prime minister, he may not even qualify for the term competent, but Justin Trudeau is not a racist."

Quebec Liberal Party member Frantz Benjamin, a Haitian-born member of the provincial legislature, recognized the impact the images could have, but noted the Liberal leader apologized.

"I understand firstly, there are those who can feel hurt by these images, but secondly, he apologized, and I believe his apology is sincere," Benjamin told reporters in Quebec City. "I also note Mr. Trudeau during his mandate has worked to unify Canadians instead of dividing them."

In Montreal, Quebec Premier Francois Legault said it was time to turn the page on the controversy.

"I can understand that some people were hurt with these pictures. But Mr. Trudeau said that he was sorry, so we have to talk about something else," Legault said. "It was a bad decision. I think I can understand that people are unhappy. But he said that he was sorry."

Blackface emerged during American minstrel shows in the 1800s, during which white actors painted their faces to portray stereotypical black characters, and the issue has cropped up periodically in Quebec in recent years.

Notably, a short skit during a year-end comic review in December 2014 featured a white actor in black makeup depicting then-Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban.

That incident prompted a letter from 100 theatre companies, actors and cultural organizations denouncing the use of a practice with a racist connotation, "independent of what the author intended."

In May 2013, comedian Mario Jean caused a stir when he appeared in black makeup at the 2014 Les Olivier theatre gala, a popular award show, portraying a Quebec comedian of African descent, Boucar Diouf.

That December, the popular Radio-Canada end-of-year program "Bye bye 2013" drew criticism when Joel Legendre portrayed a popular Quebec black entertainer Gregory Charles.

The practice of a white actor being painted black has been denounced as ridiculing and belittling the black community. Some have argued it reappears on the Quebec stage because of an ignorance of history.

But others in Quebec's artistic community have defended the practice and said there is a distinction between historical blackface linked to minstrel shows and the practice of a white actor portraying a person of colour.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 19, 2019.

— with files from Christopher Reynolds in Montreal.

Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press