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Justin Trudeau's Blackface Incidents Reveal Another Side Of Canada


Canada's prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made his name as a politician with this message of tolerance and inclusion. And then images surfaced this week showing a much younger Trudeau in blackface. He's done this at least three times. Canadian politics are now in disarray just five weeks before parliamentary elections. But not all Canadians are that surprised that their country is having this moment. David McGuffin has the story from Ottawa.

DAVID MCGUFFIN, BYLINE: This is surely not what Justin Trudeau wanted to be talking about at the end of the first week of his reelection campaign.


PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Darkening your face, regardless of the context of the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface - should have understood that then. And I never should have done it.

MCGUFFIN: In what is still largely a white nation, Justin Trudeau's blackface moment is revealing an unhappier side of Canada's past and present. Blacks and other minority groups are a fast-growing part of the population here, and they've been in Canada for centuries, with longtime sizable black communities in Ontario, Nova Scotia and Alberta. And racism has always been a part of that picture.

ANDRAY DOMISE: That's something that we don't often talk about, but slavery existed here. We have a very deep and storied history of black exclusion.

MCGUFFIN: Andray Domise is a contributing editor with Canada's Maclean's magazine and a historian focused on Canada's black history.

As a group, black Canadians are paid less, have a harder time getting jobs, getting promotions and are more likely to experience police violence than their white counterparts.

Domise says part of the history of black exclusion in Canada includes demeaning blackface minstrel shows that began in the 1830s as a reaction to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, more than 30 years before the United States.

DOMISE: Circus productions from the United States end up just about everywhere in Canada with the metropolitan audience. And audiences, they're thrilled to be entertained by people in blackface singing Negro spirituals.

MCGUFFIN: And the minstrel shows remained popular. The composer of Canada's national anthem starred in blackface minstrel shows in the early 20th century. And while Trudeau was a teenager in the 1980s, he could have seen blackface performers in this Canadian lottery ad...


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Instant prizes up to five grand in size.

MCGUFFIN: ...Or this TV ad for an Al Jolson album showing the singer in full blackface.


AL JOLSON: (Singing) California, here I come...

MCGUFFIN: And especially in Trudeau's native Quebec and Atlantic, Canada, the tradition of blackface keeps popping up on university campuses and in popular culture.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking French).

MCGUFFIN: In 2015, a controversial Montreal theater performance featured a white actor in blackface playing the role of black hockey superstar P.K. Subban.

DOMISE: They depict somebody playing him in blackface. And when people get upset about it, you know, everyone was like, oh, you know, just get over it. This is not the same as the United States. It's our own thing. It's not meant to be that. It's just jokes.

MCGUFFIN: Domise says it's time for a more serious conversation about the place of blacks and minorities in Canada.

DOMISE: Because we are so invested in the idea that we're, deep down, good people and that we love one another and that we are a multicultural country and that we tolerate one another. And then we have values that we contrast directly with the United States and say, at least you don't live there. We're so wedded to that narrative. And the only thing that gets our attention is issues like this.

MCGUFFIN: Issues that could bring down a government. For NPR News, I'm David McGuffin in Ottawa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David McGuffin

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