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Will Controversial Photos Hurt Trudeau's Re-election Chances?

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
AP Photo/Aaron Favila

PARIS -- Old photos and a video of Canadian Prime Minister (and former drama teacher) Justin Trudeau wearing costumes that included brown body and face paint surfaced last week and quickly shot around the world. Trudeau was accused of cultural and racial insensitivity, and there has been speculation that the controversy might hurt Trudeau's re-election chances ahead of an Oct. 21 vote.

I've talked to both American and Canadian friends about the Trudeau flap, and the difference in the reactions spoke volumes. The American friends wanted to see a political bloodbath, gleefully imagining that Trudeau would have to resign. The Canadian friends were simply concerned about how the Trudeau photos would make Canada look to the rest of the world.

"I'm surprised," U.S. President Donald Trump said of the photos, "and I was more surprised when I saw the number of times."

Canadians, however, have grown accustomed to Trudeau's dress-ups.

In 2010, before he became Liberal Party leader, Trudeau stirred controversy with a Christmas card featuring his family dressed in matching coyote fur, which outraged animal-rights activists. When Trudeau made an official visit to India last year, he and his family repeatedly wore bright Indian-style attire that looked borrowed from a Bollywood film studio's costume department. The outfits didn't go over very well, with one former Indian official saying it was "all just a bit much."

Trudeau also took on the role (complete with costume) of real-life soldier Talbot Mercer Papineau, who was killed in the Battle of Passchendaele during World War I, for a CBC Television miniseries. About the only cultural events for which Trudeau hasn't dressed up are pride parades -- unless you count his pink shirts.

"The fact of the matter is that I've always -- and you'll know this -- been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate," Trudeau said during his apology after the brownface photos emerged. "When I was in high school, I dressed up at a talent show and sang 'Day O' (Harry Belafonte's "Banana Boat Song") with makeup on."

Regardless of how Trudeau's costumes are judged, Canadians aren't just going to hand his adversaries a victory without evaluating where each party stands on policy. Nor do Canadians take kindly to negative campaigning.

Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer admitted to reporters that a member of his campaign team had obtained the Trudeau brownface video from a source and subsequently leaked it to the media. Scheer claims that his team gave the video to the press "for verification." Seriously? Taking a compromising photo of a world leader to a journalist for an authenticity assessment is like bringing a kitten to a great white shark for a cuteness assessment.

Attempting to derail the entire campaign by replacing debate about policy with sensationalism is an insult to voters' intelligence. Polls taken both before and after the brownface fiasco show a statistical tie between the Liberals and Conservatives, suggesting that the episode isn't making much of a dent in Canadians' decision-making. Perhaps it would be different if they believed that Trudeau's actual policies were racist -- but they aren't. In fact, it's difficult to think of another Canadian prime minister (or another a world leader) who's gone as far out of his way as Trudeau has to virtue-signal in the interests of promoting diversity and inclusion.

Trudeau's political mandate won't be judged on a few old, tasteless photos. Rather, he'll be largely be judged on how his diversity policies have impacted Canada.

In 2017, Trudeau's party introduced a plan to accept increasing numbers of immigrants. Soon, migrants from developing nations who faced the prospect of deportation from the United States were streaming across the U.S.-Canada border at unofficial crossings in Quebec. The surge didn't sit well with many residents of that francophone province, who don't like how the burden of Trudeau's policy affects Quebec's language, culture and finances.

Trudeau's policy of welcoming Syrian refugees was praised by many on the left, but only 5 percent of government-sponsored male refugees from Syria are currently employed, according to a report. Meanwhile, the Trudeau government has failed to adequately speak out against the kind of neoconservative interventionist wars waged by its allies that have prompted so many migrants to flee war-torn countries.

The federal campaign period in Canada is barely more than a month long. The photo controversy has distracted from meaningful debate about government policies, including those that have an impact on diversity and culture. The Conservative Party should really be provoking a conversation about these matters rather than donning the offensive costume of political dirty-tricksters.

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