'Yes, that is racist': How Toronto is reacting to photos showing Trudeau in brownface

'Yes, that is racist': How Toronto is reacting to photos showing Trudeau in brownface

Justin Trudeau's explanation that he did not know better when he dressed up in brownface and a turban 18 years ago just won't cut it, executive director of the World Sikh Organization of Canada, Jaskaran Singh Sandhu, said Thursday.

You cannot claim to be a champion for these issues if you're not willing to do a little more deeper introspection. - Jaskaran Singh Sandhu

Following the publication on Wednesday of a photo from a 2001 yearbook of West Point Grey Academy, the Liberal leader explained that when he was a teacher in Vancouver, he attended a gala that was themed "Arabian Nights."

"I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put makeup on. I shouldn't have done that. I should have known better, but I didn't and I'm really sorry," Trudeau told reporters.

But Singh Sandhu accused Trudeau of a "cop out" and said his apology does not go far enough.

"Yes, that is racist, 110 per cent it is, and people back then knew it was racist as well," Singh Sandhu told CBC Radio's Metro Morning.

"Calling it makeup, not even just saying that it was brownface, calling it makeup is almost dismissing it [and] that does turn off a lot of people and I think it's the reason why it's become a bigger issue by the hour."


Trudeau has also admitted to the existence of a second instance of racist behaviour.

"When I was in high school I dressed up at a talent show and sang Day O with makeup on," he said.

'He's never experienced racism'

Singh Sandhu said even though the photos were taken decades ago, and Trudeau has emerged as a champion for diversity, the images still carry a lot of weight.

"I think if it's two things that folks have no time for or find very problematic, it's hypocrisy and inconsistency," Singh Sandhu noted.

"You cannot claim to be a champion for these issues if you're not willing to do a little more deeper introspection on your own misgivings or your own racist comments, problematic statements or pictures from the past."

Singh Sandhu said he does not wish to disregard the work that Trudeau and his government have done over the last four years.

He also does not expect Trudeau would resign. But he said the Liberal leader must make a sincere apology.

"I want to hear a really sincere apology and really dive into why this is really the big issue that it is. But I can also understand that that might be difficult for him because as a white man he's never experienced racism," Singh Sandhu said.

'He's done some stupid things'

In Mississauga, several people filling up at that gas station or grabbing a bite before the workday were still trying to process the images that had been revealed the night before.

"I like Trudeau, but he's done some stupid things and that's one of them. That's not right," John Stets told CBC News.

"He's still the same person if he did that 18 years ago. It's just wrong."

For Bruno Santos, the incidents are "quite shocking," and he said he believes they will hurt Trudeau in the election.

"I guess it's a little frustrating for some people that voted for him and it's probably very embarrassing for him as well."


But Darian Collins said people should give Trudeau a break.

"It happened 19 years ago. I know he made a mistake, but for him to step down ... I don't think it should go to that stage," Collins told CBC News.

"He apologized, he said he made a mistake and he was fully aware that he should have used better common sense. But for him to have to step down, that is stretching it a little too far."


'I've seen him put his money where his mouth is'

Iqra Khalid, Liberal candidate for Mississauga-Erin Mills, is standing firmly in Trudeau's corner.

She said what happened 18 years ago does not take away from the past four years.

"If I hadn't known my prime minister, if I hadn't interacted with him on a weekly, on a daily basis in the House of Commons; if I didn't know how genuinely and strongly he felt about making sure that everybody's views were represented at the table, yes I would be hurt, yes I would question," Khalid told CBC News.

"But I don't, because I've seen him put his money where his mouth is. I've seen him really go above and beyond to make sure that he's standing with vulnerable communities to really speak out against racism."


NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh — "a real brown man with a turban," Singh Sandhu noted — reacted Wednesday night after seeing the 2001 photo.

"Seeing this image is gonna be hard for a lot of people, it's going to bring up a lot of pain," the NDP leader said. "It's going to bring up a lot of hurt."

Singh Sandhu said the NDP Leader's reaction was to be expected.

"I think Jagmeet Singh really kind of harped on that well when he gave his own statement, he was sort of choking up," Singh Sandhu said.

"Unlike Mr. Trudeau at the time in the picture, we can't go home and wash our face and scrub off our skin colour, that's something we lived with and a lived experience in the racism you faced growing up."

'We are going to look at the entire canvass'

The Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA) said what this issue has highlighted is that the system in which we live is inherently racist and makes people think it is OK to mock racialized people's lived experiences and appearances. Its executive director Samya Hasan said "it is also interesting to note that the loudest voices right now that are 'outraged' by how offensive this is are not people of colour (POC). "We really don't need anyone to be offended by this on our behalf. What we do need is non-POCs to really look into the struggles of racialized communities and think about how they can be allies to our causes," Hasan wrote in a press release. Hasan said Canadians should use this as an opportunity to learn, reflect and change instead of using it for mudslinging for political gains. "I have been asked repeatedly if our communities will not cast their vote or vote differently because of these pictures. To that I say, our communities are much more resilient and intelligent than what we are given credit for," Hasan said.

"We are going to look at the entire canvass in this election and make informed voting decisions based on who is going to represent our concerns and benefit our communities."