The bloom is off the rose
If there is a visceral Liberal fear in this election campaign, it resembles the Conservative slogan about the prime minister: Not As Advertised. The Conservatives believe they can persuade Canadians that the prime minister is duplicitous or at least hypocritical about feminism, families and First Nations. What they didn’t bank on was his sudden vulnerability on race and that they needn’t lift a finger to effect it.
The publication by Time magazine of a repugnant 2001 photo from Justin Trudeau’s time as a teacher at West Point Grey Academy in Vancouver – him grinning in brownface and turban, hand slung over a woman’s chest – implodes a global political trademark that in many ways had made Canada proud. In the hours since, other evidence surfaced of immense concern.
On a partisan level, if Canadians in even small numbers – say, three to five percentage points – swing to the Tories from the Grits, there is no second Trudeau term. The Liberals are the Trudeau brand. The party cannot be elected on the basis of the supporting cast. It came to power, and it would depart, on the singular force, or its diminution, of Trudeau’s persona.
On a broader level, this episode stands to lay bare our pretensions about our power dynamics in a multicultural milieu and our place on the international stage. If our prime minister cannot be trusted to say who he is, how can our country lay any claim to say what it is?
The most formidable election campaign dilemma in memory brings us into uncharted Canadian territory, and it would be premature to guess its impact. It surely won’t ever be lemonade made from lemons.
What is clear is that the prime minister will try what he can – which is not a whole lot – to accept responsibility for his stupidity. He will need to be more difficult on himself and less difficult on others if he believes that what he did is forgivable. Trouble is, his positioning as a public figure has been premised on a high road we now can see was not his path travelled.
It’s not that this revelation – and others that have popped up, including an extraordinary video – would ever have been news to him. What he had to know, well before he tried to explain away his mistake, was that this would crush his currency and credibility. This must just be totally into his craw.
I recall that we were gobsmacked as British Columbians when, as BC NDP leader, Adrian Dix said in his election debate with Christy Clark that he was “young” when he doctored a government document – young, meaning 35 at the time. Well, Trudeau was 29, not exactly a pup, either. He was a professionally trained teacher, presumably sensitized in matters of race and gender – and yes, being a role model for young people.
If we can get past our initial skepticism and accept he did not recognize his racism in earlier times, he might have recognized later how these errors waiting in the wings would disqualify him from contemporary politics. Knowing what he knew was out there, one might assume it would have at least tempered his incessant sanctimony. And if he was this thirsty for power and wanted to proceed into public life, he might have recognized the wisdom of proactively admitting his foolhardiness.
But no, he stayed silent as episodes lingered. It staggers the mind that someone might think they would never surface, but there you have our prime minister. There, too, you have the Conservatives and their awfully on-the-nose slogan.
That being said, as a 2014 mayoralty candidate I experienced the extraordinary impact of apology. With his campaign slipping in the final week before the vote, the mayor offered a wide-ranging apology. Overnight, we watched polls shift. Many credited his contrition with his retained office.
Trudeau issues apologies more often than Canada Post issues stamps, and he has no choice but to hope this one sticks. But there is a different dynamic here, in that it rattles his truest believers – his supporters, his caucus, his cabinet, even his international admirers – and disabuses his public and global identity. The door will be open to a leadership challenge.
The revealed Trudeau now must accept we will never again see him the way he would wish. The leader who pledged to do politics differently now must pivot to find a path to survival.