Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized Wednesday night for wearing brownface at a 2001 “Arabian Nights”-themed party—less than two hours after TIME published a previously unreported yearbook photo from the event at the private school where he was teaching.
In a new revelation, Trudeau also admitted that he wore blackface “makeup” in high school to sing “Day-O,” a Jamaican folk song famously performed by African-American singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte.
“When I was in high school I dressed up at a talent show and sang ‘Day O.’ With makeup on,” he said.
The publication of the photo embroiled his campaign in scandal, with Canadian reporters asking why he had not been forthcoming about the image if he knew it existed.
Five weeks before election day on Oct. 21, Trudeau is in a dead heat with the Conservative Party. According to CBC News’ poll tracker on Sept. 18, which aggregates all publicly available polling data, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party were polling at 34.4% and 34.2% respectively. The New Democratic Party was polling at 13.5% and the Green Party was polling at 9.7%.
Responding to the brownface photo to reporters, Trudeau acknowledged he was in the picture, which shows his face, neck and hands darkened. “I shouldn’t have done that. I should have known better but I didn’t and I’m really sorry,” Trudeau said.
During his statement, which he made aboard his campaign plane in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Trudeau was asked multiple times by reporters if he would resign. The prime minister avoided answering the question directly. “I take responsibility for my decision to do that. I shouldn’t have done it. I should’ve known better,” he said.
He added: “It was something that I didn’t think was racist at the time, but now I recognize it was something racist to do, and I am deeply sorry.”
When asked about what he has to say to members of his staff who are part of minority groups, Trudeau responded, “I have a number of calls to friends and colleagues tonight, and I will have many more calls to make.”
At least seven of Trudeau’s 35 cabinet ministers are from ethnic minority communities.
Trudeau went on to say, “I have worked all my life to try and create opportunities for people to fight against racism and intolerance, and I can just stand here and say that I made a mistake when I was younger, and I wish I hadn’t.”
When asked whether there were any other embarrassing photos or moments that he wanted to own up to, he responded: “The fact of the matter is that I’ve always—and you’ll know this—been more enthusiastic about costumes than is sometimes appropriate.”
Before Trudeau’s address, National Council of Canadian Muslims released a statement before Trudeau’s address, calling on the Prime Minister to apologize. Following his comments, the group tweeted: “We thank the Prime Minister for his apology.
“Prime Minister Trudeau’s apology came less than an hour after NCCM called on him to apologize for wearing blackface/brownface. Promises made, promises kept. That’s the NCCM way.”
— Farah Nasser (@FarahNasser) September 19, 2019
What are Canadian politicians saying?
Prior to Trudeau’s response, Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s New Democratic Party, which is farther left than the Liberal Party, addressed the incident. “Anytime we hear examples of blackface or brownface it’s really, it’s making a mockery of someone for what they live and what their lived experiences are. I think he needs to answer for it,” said Singh.
Following Trudeau’s response, Singh tweeted: “Tonight is not about the Prime Minister.It’s about every young person mocked for the colour of their skin. The child who had their turban ripped off their head. And those reliving intense feelings of pain & hurt from past experiences of racism. To you, I say you are loved.”
Tonight is not about the Prime Minister.
It's about every young person mocked for the colour of their skin.
The child who had their turban ripped off their head.
And those reliving intense feelings of pain & hurt from past experiences of racism.
To you, I say you are loved.
— Jagmeet Singh (@theJagmeetSingh) September 19, 2019
After Trudeau’s apology, Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer told reporters, “Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism. It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. And what Canadians saw this evening is someone with a complete lack of judgement and integrity, and someone who’s not fit to govern this country.” He did not take questions.
— CBC News: The National (@CBCTheNational) September 19, 2019
Before Trudeau spoke, Elizabeth May, the leader of the Green Party of Canada, tweeted, “I am deeply shocked by the racism shown in the photograph of Justin Trudeau. He must apologize for the harm done and commit to learning and appreciating the requirement to model social justice leadership at all levels of government. In this matter he has failed.”
I am deeply shocked by the racism shown in the photograph of Justin Trudeau. He must apologize for the harm done and commit to learning and appreciating the requirement to model social justice leadership at all levels of government. In this matter he has failed.
— Elizabeth May (@ElizabethMay) September 19, 2019