Justin Trudeau – not so much racist as slight and ineffectual

Leah McLaren
Photograph: Carlos Osorio/Reuters

As a Canadian living in Britain, I’m pretty sure nobody on either side of the Atlantic really believes Justin Trudeau is a racist. Certainly not an afro-wig wearing, Banana Boat-singing, face-blacking one. Though, admittedly, he did do all those racist things and possibly more – it’s hard to know because he says he can’t remember.

If we know one thing about Trudeau, it’s that he loves people, all people. Especially “racialised Canadians”, as he now calls them, using the parlance of the day. Trudeau admires people of colour so much that when he found himself at a party dressed as Aladdin, he was happy to throw his arms around two genuinely racialised Canadians and grin boldly for the camera.

Real racists don’t do that kind of thing, even in Canada, which, for all its progressiveness, can also be backward, especially in the highest circles of its cosmopolitan elite. Feel free to Google “the history of blackface in Quebec”, Trudeau’s prosperous home province, if you’re struggling to grasp how the 29-year-old son of a Liberal party prime minister thought it a hilarious idea to smear shoe polish on his face and, what’s more, for a party at the high school where he taught.

Canada is an extraordinary country, but it isn’t the progressive utopia Trudeau wants it to be. Instead, it’s a decentralised collection of sparsely populated provinces and territories, a mosaic rather than a melting pot, as all good Canadian schoolchildren are taught.

The country has long struggled to find a cohesive identity beyond its extreme climate and moderate aversion to conflict. Canadians are, for the most part, a nice lot, but as Trudeau showed us last week, niceness alone won’t save us.

Trudeau can’t wish away the rising tide of populism that’s about to wash away his sunny ways any more than he can those dreadful pictures. But wishful thinking and shining intentions have long been Trudeau’s shtick and, when that fails, he loves a good apology. He’s such a fan of saying sorry, it’s become cultural policy. Every morning across Canada, schoolchildren recite an apology to the indigenous people on whose stolen land they are lucky to be standing.

A good idea. But impoverished indigenous youth still continue to kill themselves at an alarming rate (there were huge demonstrations about the issue last week) and 50 communities are still living on “boil water” advisories. Trudeau’s working on the issue, he really is, but in the meantime lip service will have to do.

In his contrition-fest of press conferences last week, he acknowledged that he comes from “a place of privilege” and that it was this provenance that deluded him into thinking that blacking up was just goofing around. This admission, more than anything else, gets to the heart of why Canadian moderates are losing faith in the man who once delighted us by cuddling baby pandas and grooving it out with drag queens on Pride Day. There’s the feeling he’ll do anything to please an audience and consider the consequences later.

In Trudeau’s words, it was only years later when he became an MP for a culturally and economically diverse Montreal constituency that he realised that blacking up was wrong. The press conference went on like this for several minutes – journalists tut-tutting, Trudeau displaying his vulnerabilities like a labrador rolling over for a tummy rub – until a reporter stuck it to him in the most politely Canadian way.

It's great you're denouncing racism, but the prime minister's job was not created so you could work through your issues

It’s great that you’re denouncing racism, the reporter said, “but the prime minister’s job was not created so you could work through your issues”. Then he plunged the blade deeper and twisted. “Maybe it’s time you realise that you are not the indispensable man.”

For progressive Canadians, the concern about Trudeau was never that he was a power-mongering closet racist, just that he was a bit too soft for the job. This despite his former attorney general’s assertion that she was inappropriately pressured by his office – another badly handled scandal that has hobbled him.

Trudeau has only two modes: empathising and grovelling. Irrespective of his mystifying youthful makeup choices, neither mode has proved an effective weapon against the blandly malignant siren call of Tory rival Andrew Sheer’s populism. And that’s the real reason he’s failing. It’s not that we don’t believe he’s sincere – it’s that his sincerity has been revealed as a form of stupidity, a blindspot of privilege that undermines his project as a whole.

• Leah McLaren is a Canadian novelist and journalist