When I think of blackface, I think of Ralph Northam, the Virginia Governor caught in a 1980s yearbook photo in blackface next to a man in a Ku Klux Klan robe. The picture from his medical school yearbook — combined with another crisis along Virginia’s chain of command — almost led to a meltdown of the state’s government this February.
It was complicated when Northam initially apologized for the photo, then the next day said neither of the two individuals in the picture were him. Despite national uproar and calls to resign, Northam is still Governor.
This is only the latest example of blackface in United States politics.
The racist make-up, which became popular in the 1800s as a theatrical costume, has a dark and extensive history in the US and around the world.
And when the news broke last week that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was pictured in blackface ―and brownface― three times, it came as a political and cultural bombshell in a country with politics that many call boring.
The photo of Trudeau disgusted many Canadians, and confused others. Some say it doesn’t change a thing for them, and how they’ll vote in the upcoming election on October 21. But the problem with analyzing this political scandal is that Canada has never seen anything like it before.
While Canada has had its fair share of scandals in Ottawa — the liberals claim they were ready to roll out social media dirt on conservative candidates — analysts will be hard pressed to find an example of an elected official wearing blackface. In the US, examples of how voters respond to such racially-charged incidents are abundant. This is the first of its kind in Canada.
Complicating the matter further is Trudeau’s standing. He’s a fiercely progressive leader, and is known worldwide for his positions. When the Liberal party won a majority of seats in parliament in 2015, he was seen as the new global face of the left wing.
Over his past four years as Prime Minister, Trudeau has backed that up.
Canada has welcomed more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, and the Liberal government instituted an innovative carbon tax rebate policy earlier this year. He’s legalized marijuana. Announcing the Liberal cabinet shortly after the 2015 election, Trudeau revealed a 50-50 split of men and women; a reporter asked why, and Trudeau responded: “Because it’s 2015.”
Trudeau has built up a strong cache of goodwill among liberal voters. How much will voters who believe in what he’s accomplished be bothered by what he did before he was 30? How will voters balance what they see from Trudeau’s past with what they’ve seen in his Liberal government? Would Canadians really rather vote for Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives instead of Trudeau’s Liberals, who are the only left-wing party with a chance to win a majority in the House?
And then there’s SNC-Lavalin — the scandal from earlier this year that set the Liberal party back significantly in the polls. Because Justin Trudeau has already suffered one setback, are these photos the last straw? Does he have enough goodwill left to make any of his lost ground back? Or are Canadians already numb to a Trudeau scandal, since a different one has been in the news for the past six months?
Canada’s system of government complicates this further. Like the US, Canada is a representative democracy. But Canada is less democratic in the sense that voters elect Members of Parliament to the House of Commons, and the House effectively chooses the Prime Minister based on which party has a majority of seats. The Prime Minister is accountable to the House, not to the people. This differs from the US, where the President is elected directly.
When Canadians look at their Members of Parliament, will they distinguish between the party leader and the candidate in their riding? Will a voter in Pickering, Ontario, make a distinction between Liberal MP Jennifer O’Connell and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau? When the party leader strictly governs what the party accomplishes, and a vote against an MP’s own party is extremely rare, should voters even distinguish between the two?
These are the kind of questions that analysts can’t answer for Canada. There’s no past examples to look at, like there is in the US. Canada’s system of government makes that prediction even more difficult.
Right now, the polls say that the bombshell photos didn’t make much of a difference. The Liberals are down by 4.8 percentage points to the Conservatives in the first poll conducted entirely after the news broke, compared to 3.2 percent before.
For all the traction the photos got in the news, it only made a 1.6 percent difference. And the Liberals are still more likely to win a majority in the House than the Conservatives, according to CBC projections.
Is that just because Canadians need more time for the news to sink in? Have Canadians fully processed their other options yet?
There’s really only one way to find out. The election is in less than a month — check in with me then.
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