When pictures and videos of Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau in brownface and blackface surfaced last month, the nation’s collective jaw dropped. Many Canadians were left feeling betrayed by a leader who has branded himself as an ally of marginalized people and a champion of diversity. It also seemed like the relatively tame campaign season was about to be turned on its head.
In the wake of Trudeau’s scandal, it may come as a surprise that support for the Liberal Party of Canada has remained relatively unchanged. The Liberal Party did not suffer any substantial loss of support in the polls, nor did any other party see meaningful gains following the publication of the images.
Our attention seems to have instead shifted rather quickly toward other aspects of the election. The lack of a substantial dip in Liberal support in the polls and the willingness of Canadians to forgive this issue leads to unanswered questions. Chiefly, why were we so quick to move on?
A possible explanation exists in a very simple concept: an apology. More specifically, the fact that Trudeau actually gave one. Although it is a rather low bar to set, we rarely hear politicians actually apologize for the things they do wrong, and this election is no exception.
Back in August, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer came under fire for refusing to apologize for a speech he gave in 2005 regarding his stance on same-sex marriage. We have become accustomed to watching leaders pivot their way out of apologizing instead of facing issues head on.
Enter Trudeau, who apologized the same night the initial image surfaced, and again the next day after additional images were brought to light. His apology, for all intents and purposes, was well-executed.
He pointed to his own privilege as a “massive blind spot,” acknowledged that the behaviour was unacceptable, and reinforced how sorry he was. Once again, a low bar. But the quick reaction gave the scandal little room to breathe and forced voters to make a snap decision about whether they believed him to be sincere.
Judging by the almost unmoving nature of the polls, perhaps Trudeau’s affinity for apologies has paid off. But it would be unwise to give any politician too much credit. There are many factors that contribute to party support in the lead-up to an election: party loyalty, the quality of local representation, inaccurate or unreliable polling data, et cetera.
The unchanging nature of the polls speaks not only to the effects of Trudeau’s apology but also to the already close nature of this race. It may have stopped the Liberals from hemorrhaging, but it cannot account for the entirety of the campaign.
While it may not account for the direction of the campaign as a whole, the Liberal leader’s apology does stand out, especially when compared to other kinds of leadership impacting the lives of students. Students don’t often see their own leaders apologize in such a straightforward manner. An adequate apology and acknowledgement of failure does not remedy what Trudeau did, but it does create the opportunity to engage with the issues of privilege that he pointed to. Leaders at U of T should take note of Trudeau’s conduct. Without acknowledgement of problems and causes, issues cannot even begin to be adequately addressed.
October 21 will reveal whether Trudeau and his party have done enough. U of T accounts for a large, diverse mass of potential voters, many of whom are living in a riding currently held by the Liberal Party’s Chrystia Freeland. If this issue remains at the top of the list for students, they will make it known on election day.
Julia Hookong-Taylor is a fifth-year Political Science student at St. Michael’s College.