Multiple photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface are “very disheartening” but should prompt a national discussion, rather than political division, a prominent Abbotsford South Asian academic says.
Dr. Satwinder Kaur Bains, the director of the University of the Fraser Valley’s South Asian Studies Institute, said the photos are “unfortunate” and show that the country still has work to do to move from tolerance to acceptance of people of different cultures and backgrounds.
But she said the conversation about the photos should move beyond politics.
“I feel like times like these, we all go into our silos,” she said. Instead, Bains said, the photos should spur politicians “to come together.”
Bains said the photos should help Canadians learn why dressing up as visible minorities is unacceptable and how that is linked to the barriers and racism faced by those who aren’t white.
She said she was impressed with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s comments about the insulting nature of the brownface.
“I want to talk to all of the kids out there, all the folks who lived this and are now grown up and still feeling the pain of racism,” Singh said Wednesday evening. “I want you to know that you might feel like giving up on Canada … I want you to know that you have value, you have worth, and you are loved.”
He later tweeted: “Tonight is not about the Prime Minister. It’s about every young person mocked for the colour of their skin. The child who had their turban ripped off their head. And those reliving intense feelings of pain & hurt from past experiences of racism. To you, I say you are loved.”
Singh’s statement was also praised by Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
Bains said she gives Trudeau some credit for his apology and added that it matters that the incidents took place in the early 2000s. She said she doesn’t think he is racist at heart.
Trudeau was 29 in 2001, when he dressed in brownface and wore a turban at an “Arabian Nights”-themed dinner at the private Vancouver school where he taught.
Bains also said the Liberal Party – and the Trudeau name itself – has a history that will help dull some of the anger.
“I am offended, don’t get me wrong. But he has huge social capital, he has history. He has a father who was the father of [the policy of] allowing immigrants to come to Canada without the bar and restriction of race and colour. So, as immigrants, we have that memory, and other political parties don’t have that memory.”
Bains noted that candidates for other political parties, particularly the Conservatives, have been confronted with past homophobic statements. Scheer has said he would stand by such candidates, as long as they have apologized and shown remorse.
For Bains, though, politics shouldn’t be the primary focus. Going forward, she said Trudeau will have to show that he understands how people are hurt.
“Trudeau has to show that he understands people’s pain. Over time, hopefully, through this exercise he will show that.
“It is a test for him and I think he has to pass that test.”
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