A sociology professor at the University of British Columbia is urging people to consider another approach when reacting to the racist images of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau – one of reconciliation and learning, instead of punishment and aggression.
“We are now treating racism as a crime that you cannot recover from,” professor Rima Wilkes said in a phone interview Thursday, after two photos and a video surfaced this week showing a younger Trudeau in brownface and blackface.
“Other crimes, you can serve your time and you are allowed to come back into society. But what we’re doing with racism is that, if we find any indication that you have ever been overly racist, then you should lose your job.”
The images, which Trudeau himself has dubbed as racist, are having an impact beyond the campaign trail, prompting many people to question how they react to people in power committing acts of racism, especially ones made decades earlier.
Wilkes, who studies radicalization and racism in the media, said labelling people as racist and shaming them leaves little room for mistakes to be resolved and learning to be had.
“If you stay racist and you’re promoting racism on purpose, that is one thing,” she said, but society needs to accept someone when they act racist and apologize for it, and examine how they themselves can create a more accepting society.
Trudeau was in front of the media issuing an apology within hours after Time magazine’s story broke on the internet, featuring a 2001 photo of him in brownface posing as Aladdin while a teacher at Vancouver’s West Point Grey Academy.
“I’m asking Canadians to forgive me for what I did,” Trudeau said. “I shouldn’t have done that. It was a dumb thing to do. I’m disappointed in myself. I’m pissed off at myself for having done it. I apologize for it.”
But another instance of Trudeau in blackface was released by Global News shortly after, in addition to a second incident Trudeau himself admitted to from when he was in high school.
Trudeau apologized for a second time Thursday, saying he didn’t recall some of those earlier images, he didn’t see at the time that it was wrong because of his privileged upbringing and he deeply regrets his behaviour.
Just as quickly to react were Trudeau’s foes, including NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, the first visible minority to lead a national party in Canada.
Rather than condemn Trudeau, Singh told the cameras that his opponent’s actions will hurt Canadians who endured racism 20 years ago, and more importantly, will hurt young people facing discrimination now.
“I want to talk to all of the kids out there, all the folks who lived this and are now grown up and still feeling the pain of racism,” Singh said Wednesday night. “I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada … I want you to know that you have value, you have worth and you are loved.”
Satwinder Kaur Bains, the director of the University of the Fraser Valley’s South Asian Studies Institute, applauded Singh’s reaction, and said that while the photos are “very disheartening,” they should prompt a national discussion, rather than political division.
“I feel like times like these, we all go into our silos,” Bains said, but instead, politicians should come together.
The photos can help Canadians learn why dressing up as visible minorities is unacceptable, she said, and how that is linked to the barriers and racism faced by people of colour.
Both Bains and Wilkes acknowledge that an apology doesn’t instantly rid the harm and pain that’s been caused.
Countless electoral candidates and community leaders, including those at a meeting of the B.C. Assembly of First Nations in Vancouver on Thursday, have rebuked Trudeau and called for his resignation.
Joan Philip, NDP candidate in Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola, has called for Trudeau to resign from his leadership position.
“His apology is hollow. There’s two parts to the apology. There’s the apology and then there’s, ‘How do I make it right?’ Just like Canada when they apologized for what they did to us. They have to make it right,” said Phillip to The Canadian Press.
But Michelle Corfield, the Liberal candidate in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, said that though she is disappointed, she believes everyone deserves forgiveness when they ask for it.
“I hope the country learns a lesson from this,” she said. “He has asked for forgiveness, he has said sorry. It is now time for us as a country to look at that and take something from it.”
– with files from Tyler Olsen at The Abbotsford News and The Canadian Press