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Trump's surprise over blackface incidents highlights global response to Trudeau

Three events have been brought to the media's attention; one from his teens, one from his time as a whitewater rafting guide, and one from his time as a teacher
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Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau speaks with people in a cafe as he mainstreets in downtown Winnipeg on Thursday, Sept.19, 2019. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick)

OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau pushed aside Friday global mockery of his decisions years ago to dress in blackface, saying he's focused on apologizing to Canadians — including his rival, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh.

But images of the three times he chose to put on black- or brownface for costume events continued to flash around the world, reaching even the White House.

U.S. President Donald Trump's reaction summed up how the incidents have surprised people accustomed to seeing Trudeau as a champion of inclusivity and diversity, raising questions about whether that brand is forever tarnished.

"I was hoping I wouldn't be asked that question. ... Justin. I'm surprised and I was more surprised when I saw the number of times and I've always had a good relationship with Justin. I just don't know what to tell you. I was surprised by it, actually," Trump said.

Trudeau apologized profusely for the third day in a row for the incidents — one from his teens, one from his time as a whitewater rafting guide in his 20s and one when he was a teacher at a Vancouver private school. He said they were mistakes, and he did not understand at the time how racist wearing black- or brownface is.

Former Ontario premier Kathleen Wynne, a Liberal, said she's worried that the apology will fall on deaf ears around the world.

"People in other countries don't have the benefit or the access or the interest in, quite frankly, the day-to-day machinations of Canadian politics so they don't know him as well as we do," she said.

"So they kind of had him on this pedestal, which was unrealistic and ridiculous, and now he's fallen off that pedestal and so there's almost even more of an oversimplification on the international stage: he was perfect and now he's the devil."

Since the first photo emerged Wednesday night, Trudeau has been calling members of his cabinet, candidates and community leaders to try to make amends. In turn, all day Thursday, many of them were speaking out publicly, if a tad cautiously, in support of their leader.

On Friday, the day after Trudeau was the butt of late-night TV jokes in the U.S. and shocked headlines around the world, Chrystia Freeland took a turn.

As Trudeau's foreign affairs minister, she has had the ears of many influential leaders and their aides around the globe. 

Freeland said she was troubled and disappointed by the images, calling racism and intolerance unacceptable. But she said she accepts his apology and commitment to do better.

"The prime minister continues to have my full and unwavering support," she said in the statement posted to Twitter.

Trudeau said he'd also like to speak to the NDP's Singh, who has condemned the images he saw as personally hurtful.

"I will be apologizing to him personally as a racialized Canadian," Trudeau said Friday at an event in Toronto.

"As I have been apologizing to Canadians who have suffered discrimination and intolerance their entire lives in ways some of us like me have never had to experience on a daily basis."

Singh said he is open to having a private conversation with the Liberal leader, declining to disclose what he'd say.

Where he wants to keep the focus, Singh said, is on all of the Canadians who've been hurt by what Trudeau did.

"I've spoken with young people who tell me that if the prime minister can mock their reality, can mock their struggles, then what's to stop other people from saying 'if the prime minister can make fun of people for what they're going through, why can't I?'," Singh said at an event in Windsor, Ont.

The incidents made the front pages of news websites around the globe. Trudeau attracted scorn as well from prominent civil-rights advocates in the U.S., a country that has grappled with its own cases of prominent politicians having been found to have, or admitting to have, worn blackface.

Trump has in the past called for Democrats outed for wearing blackface to resign, but at the same time as he supported Republicans caught in similar scandals.

The U.S. has always viewed Canada as being a bit smug on issues of diversity and inclusion, said Chris Sands, director of the Center for Canadian Studies at Johns Hopkins University, based in Washington, D.C.  

In Trump's eyes, this might knock Trudeau down a peg, he said.

"I think this will make Trudeau look like he's just another liberal-left opponent of Trump who preaches all the right things about minorities and diversity but is secretly not sensitive at all," Sands said. 

Trudeau took a small jab at the U.S. Friday, though, in announcing his party's marquee policy on gun control, picking up on a theme in the contentious debate in that country.

Those in favour of stronger gun regulation in the U.S. have in recent years argued that it is no longer enough for politicians to respond to mass shootings by saying their "thoughts and prayers" are with the victims.

And that was how Trudeau styled his campaign pledge Friday to ban assault rifles and institute stricter regulations on who can buy guns and import ammunition.

"Thoughts and prayers aren't going to cut it," Trudeau said. 

He also promised to allow municipalities the right to ban handguns, a policy also advocated by the NDP.

That party was shopping its policy on expanding public coverage for drugs and dental care on the campaign trail Friday, while Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer was also campaigning on the health-care theme, pledging $1.5 billion to buy new medical imaging equipment for facilities across the country.

The Conservatives had been behind the release of a brief video documenting Trudeau wearing blackface. Their campaign received the clip and turned it over to Global News. The other two images were given directly to the media.

Scheer said Friday he's not aware of the existence of any more photos or videos. Trudeau has said he won't say definitively there aren't any, as he doesn't necessarily remember everything.

While Trudeau talked of a gun ban, Green Leader Elizabeth May promised a ban of her own — on the kinds of cars the vast majority of people drive. A ban on sales of new internal-combustion engine passenger vehicles by 2030 is part of her party's broader transportation strategy unveiled Friday, which seeks to get to zero-carbon transportation in Canada.   

People's Party Leader Maxime Bernier is trying to hold onto his own seat in Quebec and spent most of Friday campaigning there, though he has a swing to Western Canada next week.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 20, 2019.

—With files from Allison Jones in Toronto

Stephanie Levitz, The Canadian Press




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