With Brownface Photos, Is Trudeau Who He Portrays Himself to Be?

The revelation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada dressed up in brownface makeup at an “Arabian Nights” party has reinforced a narrative that has dogged him throughout his political career and now threatens his re-election: that he isn’t really who he portrays himself to be.

Mr. Trudeau has long cast himself as a glittering spokesman for the world’s beleaguered liberals, standing up to President Trump, supporting gender and Indigenous rights, welcoming immigrants, and fighting climate change and racism.

But that carefully calibrated image suffered a major blow on Wednesday when the photo emerged. Taken in 2001, while Mr. Trudeau was 29 and teaching at a school in Vancouver, British Columbia, it showed him in brownface makeup and a turban at the party, his arms wrapped around a woman.

It comes only a few months after accusations surfaced that Mr. Trudeau had bullied his former justice minister and attorney general, an Indigenous woman, while pressing her to settle corruption charges against a major Quebec engineering company. When she didn’t comply, she accused him of demoting her.

ImageA yearbook photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing “brownface” makeup at a 2001 costume party.

The episodes are not the only strikes against Mr. Trudeau’s meticulously crafted liberal image. On Wednesday, he admitted to dressing up in blackface while performing “Day-O,” the Jamaican folk song, in high school.

And early Thursday morning, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation posted another photo from 2001 that originally appeared in the school’s newsletter. In it, Mr. Trudeau, again in brownface and wearing a turban, has his arms around two Sikh men.

“Justin Trudeau has carefully crafted an image of what Canadians aspire to: hope, openness to the world and youth,” said Jean-Marc Léger, chief executive of Léger, a leading polling company in Montreal. “The blackface episode shatters that perfect image and casts questions on his authenticity.”

Nevertheless, he said, Canadians were a “forgiving people” and predicted that Mr. Trudeau, who on Wednesday night apologized repeatedly for behavior that had taken place nearly two decades ago, could still recover.

Nik Nanos, the founder of Nanos Research, an Ottawa polling firm, said that finding a way back, while not impossible, will be very difficult for Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal Party.

“This is about as bad news as you can get in a campaign,” he said. “The Liberals have to find a way to change the channel.”

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