OTTAWA — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in major political trouble just weeks before facing voters, tripped up by a penchant for poor jokes and dressing up that have let him down before and are now raising accusations of racial insensitivity.
Trudeau, 47, an avowed defender of Canada’s multiculturalism policy, has apologized repeatedly for donning brown face makeup at a 2001 “Arabian Nights” party when he was a 29-year-old teacher at a Vancouver private school.
A picture that emerged on Wednesday night showed him wearing a turban and a white robe at the party, with his face covered in dark makeup. “I dressed up in an Aladdin costume and put makeup on. I shouldn’t have done it,” he told reporters after Time magazine published the image.
A new video of him in blackface in the early 1990s emerged on Thursday.
The scandal could sink his chances of re-election in the Oct. 21 national vote in which he already faced a tough challenge from the opposition Conservatives. Critics expressed disbelief that the son of former Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau — the father of Canada’s multiculturalism system — could have been so insensitive.
Trudeau, who has said he will not resign, said he did not realize at the time how offensive blackface was and asked Canadians for forgiveness.
“If he really claims ignorance, then he was living in some strange sheltered world,” said Ladonna James, a brand and marketing executive in Toronto. “Because otherwise, you cannot claim ignorance on that. He’s an educator. And his father was the prime minister, who was loved by immigrants.”
Trudeau’s dress sense has landed him in trouble before while in office. He and his family wore a number of elaborate outfits during a 2018 official trip to India, sparking widespread scorn from critics who said he went over the top.
Liberal insiders say part of the issue is that Trudeau — who used to throw himself down stairs as a party trick when younger — does not always think twice before he tries to be funny.
“Before he does a public event, his team tells him: ‘Don’t make jokes,’” said one well-placed Liberal.
Liberals who have worked with Trudeau say his gregariousness masks a sometimes shy personality and that his off-color jokes are a defense mechanism.
“He is not naturally funny and it doesn’t come easily to him and I think he tries too hard,” said a second Liberal.
After the first damaging picture emerged on Wednesday night, Trudeau told reporters that “the fact of the matter is that I’ve always — and you’ll know this — been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.”