Justin Trudeau has apologised for wearing brownface makeup to a party when he was a teacher in 2001, saying “it was a racist thing to do”.
A photograph of Trudeau dressed in a turban and robes with brown makeup on his face, neck and hands, was published by Time magazine on Wednesday. It was taken when he was 29, while working as a teacher at West Point Grey Academy.
“I apologise profoundly,” said Trudeau on Wednesday night after the photograph was published. “I regret it deeply. I’m deeply sorry I did that, I should have known better.”
“It was something I should not have done. I didn’t think it was racist at the time, but now I see, it was a racist thing to do.”
The picture appeared in the 2000-2001 yearbook for the West Point Grey Academy, where the son of the late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, was teaching.
“In 2001, when I was a teacher in Vancouver, I attended an end-of-year gala, the theme was Arabian nights. I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put makeup on. I shouldn’t have done it. I should have known better, but I didn’t and I’m really sorry,” Trudeau said.
The prime minister also confirmed that this was not the first time he had done something like this, saying that when he was in high school he dressed up at a talent show and sang Day O, a traditional Jamaican folk son, “with makeup on”.
“Obviously I regret that I did it,” he said. “I’m pissed off at myself, obviously.”
The incident comes as Trudeau is preparing to go to the polls in an election, to be held on 21 October, that is expected to be very closely fought, with polling suggesting Trudeau and Trudeau’s main opponent, Andrew Scheer, are deadlocked in the popular vote, but that the Liberals hold an edge when it comes to winning seats in parliament.
The election will be fought against the backdrop of a protracted political scandal for the incumbent prime minister, with accusations – including from the country’s ethics commissioner – that Trudeau acted improperly when he requested his attorney general to halt criminal prosecution of the Quebec-based engineering giant SNC Lavalin.
The Conservative leader and Trudeau’s main opponent, Scheer, has consistently used the prime minister’s ethical lapses to paint the government as unable to govern effectively.
After his election in 2015, Trudeau was hailed for naming a young and ethnically-diverse cabinet, with a ministerial team that for the first time in the country’s history was equally balanced between men and women.
His cabinet included Maryam Monsef, who fled Afghanistan as a refugee 20 years ago and will oversee the democratic reform portfolio, as well as two aboriginal members of parliament and three Sikh politicians.
“It’s important to be here before you today to present to Canada a cabinet that looks like Canada,” Trudeau said after he was sworn in.
However, the Canadian leader has also been criticised for his treatment of indigenous people, particularly in relation to the Trans Mountain pipeline project that the Liberal government has supported despite environmental and Indigenous groups fiercely opposing the project.
An indigenous Canadian member of parliament said that Trudeau’s handling of the pipeline showed the prime minister “doesn’t give a fuck” about the rights of indigenous people.