Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologised on Wednesday for wearing brownface makeup to a costume party in 2001, an image that could undermine his chances for re-election with less than five weeks to go before the national election.
“I should have known better then, but I didn’t and I did it and I’m deeply sorry,” Trudeau told reporters on his campaign plane in Halifax, Nova Scotia, after Time magazine published the image.
He declined to say if resignation was on the table. He also disclosed that as a high school student he once dressed in costume and makeup and sang “Banana Boat Song (Day O).”
The photo, which Time published on Wednesday, was reportedly taken at an “Arabian Nights” gala at West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver where Trudeau was teaching at the time. The photo allegedly appears in the school’s 2000-2001 yearbook.
Zita Astravas, a spokesperson for the Liberal Party of Canada, confirmed to HuffPost that Trudeau is the man in the picture.
The photo was taken at the school’s annual dinner which had an “Arabian Nights” costume theme, Astravas said, adding that Trudeau “attended with friends and colleagues dressed as a character from ‘Aladdin’.”
Time reported that it obtained a copy of the photo from Michael Adamson, a Vancouver businessman who was part of the school’s community but not at the party in question. Adamson reportedly said he first saw the photo in July and believed it should be released to the public.
Time reported that many people at the gala dressed in costume for the dinner, but according to the yearbook’s six photographs of the event, Trudeau appeared to be the only attendee to paint his skin dark.
The incident surfaced just a month before Canadians head to the polls on Oct. 21. HuffPost Canada has the latest election updates.
According to HuffPost Canada’s reporting, several Conservative candidates have had to also address past behaviour that members of the Liberal Party have denounced as racist or homophobic. Andrew Scheer, leader of the Tory Party, has said that candidates who genuinely apologise for such behaviour will likely be allowed to carry the party banner.
When reporters at the briefing asked how Trudeau could “credibly” denounce Tory members after his own brownface incident, the prime minister said he takes responsibility for making a “real mistake in the past.”
Trudeau has made diversity and inclusion a prominent issue of his leadership since becoming Canada’s prime minister in 2015.
At the end of his press briefing, Trudeau joked that he’s been “more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate,” referring to his trip to India last year when he wore traditional garb that was ridiculed as “too Indian even for an Indian.”
Jagmeet Singh, leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party and the country’s first visible minority federal leader, called the photo “really insulting,” HuffPost Canada reported.
“We see one Mr. Trudeau in public. I’ll be honest with you, he seems pretty nice, right? Very friendly. Very warm in public,” Singh, who is Sikh, said at a Toronto town hall on Wednesday evening, according to HuffPost Canada. “But behind closed doors he seems like a very different Mr. Trudeau.”
American politicians have also come under fire for previous incidents of blackface. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam apologised for — but also denied being in — a yearbook photo that was publicised earlier this year and showed one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan hood. Northam did not step down after the incident.
Alabama Governor Kay Ivey also found herself in hot water this year after a radio interview from the 1960s revealed that she had at one point worn blackface. Ivey apologised, but also did not step down.
HuffPost Canada’s Ryan Maloney contributed to reporting.
Additional reporting by Steve Scherer and Peter Cooney.