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Turns Out Canada Is Racist Too, Eh?

Last year, I was lucky enough to visit Toronto for the first time.

My parents had planned to settle there before they upped sticks and moved to Australia -- and I sometimes wonder if growing up as a minority in Canada would’ve made for an easier ride. 

My Canadian cousins and I were downing tacos on a sunny patio when the topic of racism reared its head. “We don’t really have racism in Canada,'' a cousin said, matter-of-factly. “But yeah, it seems to be something that Australia really struggles with.”

For a second, I wondered if she was joking. I mean, Canada did seem more progressive than countries like Australia and the US, but declaring it a racism-free zone? That felt like a bit of a stretch.

Canada: racism-free zone? (Image: Getty)

Then again, I did let out an audible yawp when I saw not one but two brown reporters on breakfast television that very morning. “Nikhil!!?” I yelled at the TV, as my Canadian uncle looked on, bemused. 

I wasn’t in the country for a long time, but I could feel Canada’s anti-racism in my bones. I just felt lighter than I did back home -- like I didn’t always have to be on high alert. The Canadians that I met understood that I was from Australia, and never asked the follow-up questions that I get at home: “Okay, but what’s your background?” “What’s your nationality?” “Are you Indian or Sri Lankan?” (What? Why are these my only options?) Or the timeless classic, “where are you really from?” 

I don’t know -- maybe Canada was the promised land after all. I mean, if all of that hadn’t convinced me that Canada was where racism went to die, then surely its proudly inclusive and anti-racist Prime Minister -- Justin Trudeau -- should have closed the sale. 

When Trudeau was elected to office in 2015, he came to represent a Canada that had moved on from old divisions. He famously put together a cabinet that included ethnic minorities, First Nations people and equal numbers of men and women -- what Trudeau called a “cabinet that looks like Canada”.

Trudeau came to represent a Canada that had moved on from old divisions. (Image: Getty)

Trudeau symbolised a racially progressive Canada just a few years ago, but it’s a brand that has slowly begun to lose its sheen. In 2016, Trudeau was criticised by Canada’s Indigenous leaders for approving the construction of the Trans Mountain pipeline. On a trip to India last year, he made some questionable fashion choices. 

And now, just weeks before the Canadian election, Time magazine has published a photo of Trudeau wearing darkened makeup to a themed ‘Arabian nights’ dinner back in 2001. The picture was taken at the work function of a private school, where Trudeau was a teacher. 

The controversy deepened overnight, as two more historical photos of the PM wearing blackface emerged. In one, Trudeau was performing Harry Belafonte's 'Day-O (The Banana Boat Song)' at a high school talent show; in the other, he was filmed laughing and pulling faces at the camera in footage from the 1990s.

Trudeau admitted to reporters he can't recall how many times he wore blackface in the past, and that he was "wary of being definitive" because he didn't remember the incidents that have already come to light.

Trudeau said he can't remember how many times he's worn blackface. (Image: Globe and Mail, Global News, Time Magazine)

Like a lot of Australians, I’ve become numb to the latest brownface or blackface scandal. Our relatively careless attitude towards a historically racist practice got world attention when US musician Harry Connick Jr spoke up about a group of performers donning blackface on Hey Hey It’s Saturday back in 2009. “If they turned up looking like that in the United States, it’d be like Hey Hey there’s no show,” he said. 

Ever since then, it’s almost as though Australians took to blackfacing out of sheer defiance. Each scandal -- and there have been many, including high-profile Australians being caught and called out -- seems to follow the same pattern. A photo surfaces, then there’s backlash, and backlash to the backlash. Usually, the accusation of racism is interpreted as a more serious slight than the act of blackfacing itself, and the original offender is seen as the true victim of the piece. 

And because so many Australians struggle to see blackfacing as racist to begin with, it’s rare to hear anyone make a genuine and unqualified apology for what they did. 'Good intentions' tend to feature heavily, or that using blackface came from a place of love, or ignorance, or that they were 'just having a laugh' and we're the ones who need to lighten up.

If nothing else, Trudeau at least gave an unqualified apology for what he had done.

“This is something I shouldn’t have done many years ago,'' he said. “It is something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognise it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry,” he said. 

He fronted media for a second time after more images emerged, and asked Canadians for their forgiveness.

"Darkening your face, regardless of the context or the circumstances, is always unacceptable because of the racist history of blackface," he said.

"I should have understood that then and I never should have done it."

Trudeau unreservedly apologise for his actions. (Image: Getty)

Despite Trudeau's "reflection" and remorse, it’s safe to say that Canada isn’t the promised land, after all. 

But at the very least, he made an unqualified apology for his actions, starting from the understanding that brownfacing and blackfacing is wrong. He didn’t try and emphasise his good intentions or assure us that he didn’t have a ‘racist bone in his body’. He didn’t accuse his accusers of being the ‘real racists’.

He didn’t pretend like he was the real victim. 

It's the kind of apology that we rarely see at home. If nothing else, it's clear that in even the most 'progressive' multicultural countries, we still have a long way to go.