“He is getting so embarrassing, to be honest.”
That was the text I woke up to this morning from a Canadian friend who, like me, has been living in the United States. She was talking about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Time magazine bombshell report that he once wore brownface to an “Arabian Nights” party while a teacher at a private school in Vancouver in 2001. (Since Time’s story broke, other instances of Trudeau in blackface and brownface have surfaced, including a video.)
My friend was referring to how Trudeau is seen on the world stage. It all started back in 2015 when Trudeau won a surprising majority victory over the longtime Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Cosying up to then US president Barack Obama, the two young, charismatic world leaders had what the press affectionately called a “bromance.”
But south of the border, excitement over Trudeau didn’t really reach its zenith until November 2016. Before that, the prime minister, with his self-described feminism and his openness to Syrian refugees, had cast himself as Canada’s answer to the charismatic and cosmopolitan liberalism of the Obama years. Now, however, for American liberals, he was no longer cute kid brother but foil: Trudeau offered the perfect juxtaposition to the crassness of Donald Trump. Every detail, from his luxurious hair to his stylish socks, seemingly served to emphasise their differences.
It was in this spirit that Rolling Stone put Trudeau on its cover and Vogue did a sultry photo shoot with him. Talk of “Canadian exceptionalism” made the rounds — the idea that while the United States was imploding, Canada was a beacon of hope in a world gone mad. It was a sentiment echoed by pundits on both sides of the border: Adam Gopnik wrote an essay in The New Yorker reminding Americans, “We could have been Canada,” while Stephen Marche, writing in the Toronto-based publication The Walrus, called Canada “the last country on Earth to believe in multiculturalism.”
And like you, we’re wondering, as Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party and the first person of colour to lead a major party, put it: “Who is the real Trudeau?
On the world stage, things were bright. But back home, the love affair with Trudeau, for those who ever had one, was short-lived.
Characteristically for politicians, it started with a failed promise. In early 2017, the Trudeau government announced it wouldn’t be pursuing electoral reform, despite making it a major part of the Liberal Party platform. (The reforms were part of a broader effort to make Canada’s parliamentary system proportionately representative.)
Then, in 2018, Trudeau made one of his most shocking moves: purchasing the Trans Mountain Pipeline, which runs from Alberta to coastal British Columbia, as part of an expansion project to increase capacity and add portions of new pipeline. Coming from a prime minister who said he was committed to green energy and tackling climate change, the move angered environmentalists including those who had supported Trudeau.
Trudeau’s public image as a liberal feminist committed to gender equality also took a hit with the more recent affair involving the Montreal-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin. The details of this evolving and very Canadian political scandal are difficult to explain. But in brief, it started with allegations that Trudeau’s office tried to interfere in then-Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s investigation into the firm. The important part, for Trudeau’s brand, is that following the resignation of Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott, a former Treasury Board president, from Trudeau’s cabinet, the prime minister kicked them out of his party. For many, this was a shocking way to treat two of his most prominent female allies, including the country’s first Indigenous justice minister.
In Canada, these developments, as well as a host of others, have changed how liberals see Trudeau. He is far less popular than he was in 2015, a leader despised on the right and often ridiculed on the left.
These stories, though, rarely made a stir outside. Occasionally, I’d see articles alluding to Trudeau’s troubles. Recently, Hasan Minhaj’s Netflix series “Patriot Act” featured an episode with Trudeau, in which he uncomfortably answers questions about the gap between his image and his policies. But overall, the American story of Trudeau as a “dream politician for the left,” as Minhaj put it, stuck. Until now, that is.
There are two ways this story will be understood, depending on which side of the border you’re on.
For many Americans, the story connects Canada to what’s often seen as a deeply ingrained American tradition: blackface. Down here, Trudeau’s brownface and blackface episodes are bursting the Canadian exceptionalism bubble.
For Canadians, though, the story is different. It also has bigger stakes, coming as it does in the middle of a federal election that has seen the Liberals and Conservatives neck-and-neck in the polls. It’s the latest in a series of scandals that have led many liberals to grow disillusioned and, yes, even flat out embarrassed by Trudeau.
So as Canadians living in the United States, we tried to tell you: That dude you thought was your dreamy boyfriend? He’s not all he’s cracked up to be. And like you, we’re wondering, as Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party and the first person of colour to lead a major party, put it: “Who is the real Trudeau?”
— Melissa J. Gismondi is an award-Winning multimedia journalist and political columnist