Liberal leader Justin Trudeau admitted on Wednesday that he dressed twice in racist makeup and apologized for a practice he says he knows is wrong now.
"I shouldn't have done it. I should have known better, but I didn't do it and I'm really sorry," Trudeau said at a Halifax press conference on his electoral plan. "At the time I didn't consider it a racist action, but now we know better. And this was something unacceptable and, yes, racist."
Time magazine published on Wednesday a photograph of the yearbook showing Mr. Trudeau in brown when he was 29 years old. Mr. Trudeau said he was dressed in an Aladdin costume and had his make-up done during an Arabian Nights themed gala in 2001 in Vancouver. The event was held by the private school where he was a teacher.
He avoided using the term brownface, but the 18-year-old photo shows him with his face, neck and hands painted brown and wearing a turban and clothes. Mr. Trudeau also admitted that he wore the "trick" in high school when he played the Jamaican folk tune Banana Boat Song.
The controversy comes a week after a five-week election campaign in which Trudeau asks the voters for a second term in office. Liberals have made the social media history of candidates from other parties a major problem in the first eight days of the campaign and have called for the removal of several conservative candidates.
Trudeau suggested to journalists that public perceptions of the practice have changed since he dressed in brownface in 2001 – an affirmation El Jones, a lecturer at the University of Saint Mary, called "ridiculous".
"Justin Trudeau may not be aware of the fact that this was racist 20 years ago, but certainly the people who are affected have been well aware for centuries," Mrs. Jones said.
Trudeau's apology was criticized by former parliamentary Celina Caesar-Chavannes, who left the liberal caucus at the beginning of this year.
"The privilege continues. There is no excuse for this. Excuses are the first step. You should be aware of the story of #face black and racism in this country and others. Apparently #diversityisourstrength? Deeply disappointed, "said Caesar-Chavannes.
Dressing in blackface or brownface has a long and painful history. Racist practice is often used to portray people through "degrading and dehumanizing stereotypes," Mrs. Jones said.
Mr. Trudeau said he appealed to his colleagues to apologize for his actions and draw a path forwards, but said that it is not a cause for him to resign.
"I will ask Canadians to forgive me," he said.
Opinion: The offense was not only Trudeau's trick, but also silence
One of the people that Mr. Trudeau called Wednesday was the liberal candidate Omar Alghabra, born in Saudi Arabia from a Syrian family. In an interview on Wednesday night, Alghabra stated that the liberal leader had apologized and asked for his advice.
"I told him to be honest and to own the mistake," said Alghabra, who acknowledged being upset and worried about the photo, but also ready to forgive.
"As disappointing as it is, it is not difficult for me to overcome it, because I have seen it act in public and in private and I have seen what it has done for many people who are marginalized or victims of stereotypes or racism."
Canada is at its first election campaign in which one of the main parties is led by a person who is a racial minority. NDP Jagmeet Singh is a Sikh with a turban, who took over the leadership of the party two years ago.
On Wednesday evening, during a stop in Toronto, Mr. Singh said that dressing in black or brown makes a "mockery" of racialized people who, because of the color of their skin, "face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their lives".
Singh said the photo shows a "model of behavior" by the liberal leader. "We see a Mr. Trudeau in public, who will be honest with you he looks really cute, very friendly, very warm in public, but behind closed doors, he looks like another Mr. Trudeau."
The NDP leader emphasized Trudeau's comment on a fundraiser for First Nations protesters in which he thanked them for their donation when they were escorted to protest. "Who is the real Mr. Trudeau?" Asked Singh.
Ms. Jones said that the presence of Mr. Singh in the campaign puts the use of racist make-up by Mr. Trudeau in a harsh context. During the campaign, Singh faced questions about whether Canadians are ready to vote for a party led by a turbaned leader.
"Racialized people are constantly faced with these stereotypes and must demonstrate that they are not those stereotypes, while whites can wear these costumes and stereotypes for fun," Jones said.
Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said he was "extremely shocked and disappointed" by the revelations.
"Wearing brownface is an act of open hoax and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. What Canadians have seen tonight is someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who is not fit to rule this country, "said Scheer of Sherbrooke, Que.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims had previously invited Mr. Trudeau to make a "complete apology" for the "reprehensible" picture.
"While we recognize that this photo was taken many years ago and that people can evolve and change, it is crucial that the Prime Minister apologizes for taking part in Blackface and is committed to doing better in the future," said Mustafa Farooq, the executive director association.
Green Party leader Elizabeth May said she was "deeply shocked by racism" shown in the photo. "It must apologize for the damage done and commit to learning and appreciate the requirement to shape the leadership of social justice at all levels of government. It has failed in this matter," he said on Twitter.
Trudeau said he was "pissed off" at himself and disappointed by his past actions.
With a report by The Canadian Press