Putting Trudeau’s brownface in its historical context only makes it worse

West Point Grey Academy’s 2001 Arabian Nights gala took place in a city and arts community divided by race
Arts Club Theatre Company
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Today, there is a bunch of nonsense about how Justin Trudeau’s racial drag fetish is something located in an undifferentiated mass of events and places known as “the past.” The “past” in which Trudeau’s black- and brown face performances are located appears to comprise essentially random elements, tied together only by the fact that they might seem vaguely exculpatory. John A MacDonald is there. So is Al Jolson.

If we want to understand the significance of the photos, we need to place them in a precise historical context. First, let us recognize that the year before Trudeau’s performance at the private school gala, a major Hollywood movie, Bamboozled by Spike Lee, centred entirely on the resurgence of blackface in modern times.

And then there’s the local context.

Racism at private schools

I grew up on the west side of Vancouver and, when my dad moved away, my mom enrolled me in St. George’s School (B.C.’s Upper Canada College knock-off). The assistant headmaster and my grade seven homeroom teacher would, a few years later, team up with my mother’s former student teacher to found West Point Grey Academy and, later, hire Justin Trudeau. Within a few months of arriving at St. George’s in 1982, I had made a new best friend, Michael, who was in my class and lived just four blocks from our house. At his 11th birthday party in 1983, I met my long-time friend Matt, a friend and skiing companion of Trudeau’s in the 1980s and ’90s.

My arrival at St. George’s was complicated because, on Dec. 7 that year, my world-famous uncle, Harry Jerome, died and the news was on the front page of every daily paper in Canada. My family was under intense media scrutiny. So back when racial “passing” was still a thing, word got out that I was “really” Black and one of the school prefects began tormenting me with racial epithets. I was a pretty unhappy and weird kid already, so I made no close friends after this.

Michael, on the other hand, had grown up in a proudly anti-racist, socialist household and so he stood with me publicly and loyally against the bullying I faced, consistently sticking up for me, day after day.

Race became a top-of-mind issue as the 1980s wore on. In 1989, my public high school conducted a valedictorian election and elected our first-ever Chinese-Canadian valedictorian. So, the school administration decided to change from a first-past-the-post election to a run-off election so the white vote would not be split. All over Vancouver’s Westside, anti-Chinese sentiment was rising because the Mulroney government had created new “entrepreneurial immigration” rules to allow wealthy Hong Kongers, fearful of China’s 1997 takeover of the former British colony, to jump the queue by paying at the door.

Combined with a recession in the Pacific Rim economies, a capital strike against the NDP government and major internal Canadian migration in response to a recession and the arrival of austerity programs at the federal level and in nearly every province, this became a more generalized and growing racist, anti-immigrant sentiment. This was exploited by Preston Manning to elect his Class of ’93 Reform Party MPs, who ran on an explicitly anti-multiculturalism, anti-bilingualism, anti-immigration platform.

Anyone remotely aware in Vancouver in the 1990s, when Trudeau arrived on the west coast, would have known himself to be in a city in profound conflict over a rising tide of racism.

These MPs were not just elected in rural, blue-collar ridings. One of the most prominent nomination fiascos had taken place in the riding where my friend Matt, Justin Trudeau’s buddy, lived, the same riding that contained Whistler, where they skied together. Doug Collins, a newspaper columnist who was an avowed bald-faced white supremacist and Holocaust denier sought the Reform nomination. Manning found Collins’ views, expressed in hundreds of columns, too nakedly racist, even for Reform. So, a replacement was found and won the riding, after stating that he was fully in accord with everything Collins had ever written.

The local press was also growing more racist in its media coverage. In 1994 our daily The Province ran a week-long series on child prostitution in the suburbs and ended with an “advice to parents” article that recommended that parents should not let their daughters have Black friends. And, in 1998, famously, when a group of Asian refugees arrived by boat, the headline in the Times-Colonist was “GO” above the fold and “HOME,” below.

Arts community divided

This was felt in Vancouver’s arts scene. In 1994, Dennis Simpson, the city’s most prominent Black performer, joined the send-off celebration for our Commonwealth Games team by performing Step ‘N’ Fetchit and Al Jolson routines. This caused Leon Bibb, the world-famous patriarch of the city’s Black music and theatre scenes, to touch the third rail of performer etiquette and denounce Simpson for taking the job.

ArtsClub honoured Morris Paynch, Janet Wright, and Leon Bibb in 2008.
Raj Taneja

The following year, a war erupted between Bibb and the owner of the city’s main private theatre, the Arts Club, over the consistent staging of Jim Crow Black stereotypes with Simpson and other performers. The Arts Club retaliated and redoubled its staging of out-of-date and over-the-line tributes to and reimaginings of the golden age of soft shoe and blackface. My mother worked closely with Leon and got the conflict onto pages of the other daily, the Vancouver Sun.

The reason that anti-racism activists in Canada think Trudeau’s old photos are a big deal is not because white people are unforgiveable or some other nonsense that is being peddled. We think the photos are significant because they provide an archaeology of today’s Trudeau.

In other words, around roughly the same time as Justin Trudeau arrived in town, Vancouver’s biggest private theatrical company was riven with divisions over blackface and associated issues. This conflict among two generations of Black performers and activists was on the editorial pages of the city’s paper of record. Bibb was doing anti-racism musical workshops in both private and public schools; I know he approached West Point Grey Academy.

What do these details mean today?

First, race and racism were front and centre in Vancouver’s public square. Nobody in Vancouver was living in a post-racial society. Anyone remotely aware in Vancouver in the 1990s, when Trudeau arrived on the west coast, would have known himself to be in a city in profound conflict over a rising tide of racism.

Second, as an actor and drama teacher, he would have known about the conflicts over Jim Crow–style productions that were tearing Vancouver’s theatrical community apart and forcing everyone onto sides. It is clear to me, from the images of him back in the day, that Trudeau chose a side. And it was not the side my family was on.

Am I saying that people cannot change and overcome prejudice in their lives? No. Of course not. My grandmother struggled all her life to do this and she is my most important role model. My point is that Justin Trudeau did not choose to struggle on the right side then.

The reason that anti-racism activists in Canada think Trudeau’s old photos are a big deal is not because white people are unforgiveable or some other nonsense that is being peddled. We think the photos are significant because they provide an archaeology of today’s Trudeau; they show us the origins of a lifelong pattern of callous, smirking disrespect for non-white Canadians, lurking just below a sunny exterior. That same disrespect that fired Jody Wilson-Raybould. That same disrespect that smirked and joked as an Indigenous protester was dragged from an event for having the temerity to protest the mercury in her water. That same disrespect that drove out his Black parliamentary secretary, Celina Caesar-Chavannes. That same disrespect that lurks behind his crocodile tears whenever he issues another apology and then turns around and breaks another treaty.

For anti-racist movements in Canada, these photos do not represent so much a discovery of a wrong but simply the final tearing of Trudeau’s mask.

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