Trudeau's brownface mistake could cost him in B.C. swing ridings, expert says

UBC political scientist Max Cameron said that while Trudeau's apology hit all the right notes, he may not be able to recover enough votes to protect a slim Liberal lead in some B.C. ridings

The revelation that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau painted himself black or brown, dressed in Muslim garb, could have an impact on several swing ridings in B.C. that are important to his chances of re-election.

On Wednesday afternoon, a 2001 black-and-white photo was published that showed Trudeau at an “Arabian Nights” themed party at Vancouver’s prestigious West Point Grey Academy wearing a turban with his face and hands painted darkly. When he apologized later in the day, Trudeau also admitted that he had once painted his face and performed the song “Day O’ (a traditional Jamaican song linked with Harry Belafonte) at a high school performance.

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University of B.C. political scientist Max Cameron said that while Trudeau’s apology hit all the right notes, he may not be able to recover enough votes to protect a slim Liberal lead in some B.C. ridings or diminish the chance of capturing tight Conservative ridings.

“He didn’t try to diminish it or deny that it was racist,” Cameron said. “He took responsibility for it and acknowledged the harm that this kind of behaviour can do. He clearly gets that this is a problem. But there’s a question in my mind, ‘Is this something you can come back from?’ He embodies white privilege and he should have known better.”

In the 2015 federal election, the Liberals won 17 of B.C.’s 42 seats — compared with the two they held after the 2011 election.

Cameron said that recent polls had shown an “uptick” in support for the Tories and that the two main parties were neck-and-neck.

“There are many ridings where the margin of victory is very narrow,” he said, noting many Metro Vancouver ridings had a culturally diverse electorate. “In the context where every vote matters this could have a real impact.”

The tight ridings that Cameron was referring to included South Surrey-White Rock, Richmond Centre, Burnaby South, Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam and Port Moody-Coquitlam.

Cameron said that one of Trudeau’s strengths had been his defence of multiculturalism and tolerance.

“This is a real dent in the strongest part of his armour,” he said.

In the heart of the Surrey Centre riding, which Liberal candidate Randip Sarai won with 45 per cent of the vote in 2015, locals expressed support for Trudeau after learning about the photo. Nematullah Fahim, owner of the Habib Market, said he would vote for the Liberals again Oct. 21.

“It doesn’t bother me too much because it was a costume night,” said Fahim, 38. “I don’t believe he is racist in any way.”

Fahim said he understood if some people were upset and said he detested the racist history of blackface in the U.S. But he believed Trudeau was a champion for Canadians of all ethnicities and made a mistake many years ago that he would never make again.

Nadia Fathima, a volunteer at the Muslim Food Bank, said it was important to look at how Trudeau’s government had accepted immigrants and refugees.

“If he’s a racist, he would not have supported (taking in) so many refugees,” Fathima said.

She said she would vote for Trudeau again because she believed a Conservative government would pull the country toward the populism of the U.S. and India.

“Eighteen years ago, he is not a prime minister, he is not into politics on an open scale,” she said. “We have done lots of stuff in our youth, right? How should we live that now?”

Salahuddin Belal, a software architect, said he would vote for Trudeau.

Belal, 38, said Trudeau had demonstrated an openness to all cultures and religions, and the photo wasn’t representative of how he treated people.

“I think intention is all that matters,” Belal said.

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