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Justin Trudeau struggles to get re-election campaign back on track as blackface incidents mount

Charlie Mitchell
The Canadian prime minister's gun control speech in Toronto was overshadowed by questions over a third occasion in which he donned racist make-up - Bloomberg

Justin Trudeau attempted to get his re-election campaign back on track on Friday with a visit to Toronto, Canada's most diverse city, as the scandal over him wearing blackface on multiple occasions continued to unfold. 

But a speech on gun control failed to distract from the growing controversy, as the Canadian prime minister was asked to explain yet another incident in which he donned racist make-up. 

The third image to emerge of Mr Trudeau in blackface in just two days was, he said, from “a costume day for river guides on the whitewater rafting operation that I worked at in the summer between 1992 and 1994 roughly”.  

The Canadian leader again asked for forgiveness – in particular from all those forced to contend with racial discrimination and “who in many cases considered me to be an ally”.  

The episode, which began when Time Magazine published a photo of a 29-year-old Mr Trudeau in heavy make-up at an Arabian Nights-themed party - has shredded his image as a poster boy for progressive values and provoking mockery worldwide.

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer said on Friday he believed that Mr Trudeau’s apologies were insincere, saying the prime minister had not been "open and transparent" when he first had the opportunity to address the issue.

“Again, I think people are very concerned about the hypocrisy.”  

The prime minister said he was seeking a meeting with his third-place rival, Jagmeet Singh, who himself wears a turban and called Mr Trudeau's actions "insulting".

With the general election just four weeks away, Mr Trudeau has vowed to fight on. But he has said he cannot rule out the possibility of further photographs emerging - claiming not to have remembered the instances exposed so far, including a high school talent contest in which he wore blackface to sing Harry Belafonte's 1956 hit "Banana Boat Song (Day-O)".  

The first photo to emerge showed Mr Trudeau, then a 29-year-old teacher, wearing brownface for a party at his private school Credit: The View Yearbook/Reuters

Mr Trudeau's ministers have stood behind him, although foreign minister Chrystia Freeland said she was "troubled" and "disappointed". Defence minister Harjit Sajjan, a practicing Sikh, said: "I know these photos do not represent the person he is now."  

The furor has spread way beyond Canada's borders. On stage at a Royal Television Society event on Friday, British comedian Lenny Henry opened with: “Nice to see you all. I am Justin Trudeau.” US President Donald Trump remarked that he was "surprised", adding: "I was more surprised when I saw the number of times."

Mr Trudeau's speech in Toronto was designed to refocus domestic attention on the issues, amid a spike in gun violence in Canada’s most populous city, with minority neighbourhoods particularly affected. 

“As I stand here today, I think about the thousands of families who have lost a loved one to gun violence,” Mr Trudeau said. “People are dying, families are grieving, communities are suffering”.

The prime minister announced he will ban military assault rifles and allow provinces to restrict handguns if he is re-elected in October.

Mr Trudeau gave his speech near Toronto’s Greektown, where a gunman killed two and injured thirteen in a mass shooting last year.

“They’re being quite intentional about making this announcement in Toronto, where violence is on the rise and where there is a huge number of racialised Canadians,” said Kate Harrison, vice president of Summa Strategies.

But it also marks a shift for the Trudeau campaign, whose recent focus on social issues now looks hypocritical.

The prime minister’s support had already nosedived over the past year, following accusations he pressured his former attorney-general to drop a criminal probe into engineering firm SNC-Lavalin and his purchase of a contentious oil pipeline. Today, he is neck and neck in the polls with Mr Scheer.

As a result, the Liberals have painted the Conservatives as behind the times on LGBT rights and abortion, even publishing a 2005 video of Mr Scheer speaking out against same-sex marriage and digging up dirt on Conservative candidates. It is a strategy that the party may now have come to regret.