09.25.2019 08:14 AM

Omer Aziz: the many masks of Justin Trudeau

[The author is a former advisor to the Trudeau government. As a Globe subscriber, I saw this and felt it was important enough to share with you in its entirety, which is not something I do often. Please read it. W]

The photographs reveal the contours of a mask. By now, millions of people have seen the image: a man wearing dark brown makeup and a turban on his head, grinning into the camera. A spirit of conviviality and blissful unawareness reigns. Other people are present, but no one else has blackened their skin.

The man in question, of course, is Justin Trudeau, 29-years-old at the time and living one of the most privileged lives in the entire land. The pictures are horrifying, and each one unmasks the man with the darkened skin.

A brown friend sent me the photo. “This is how you lose an election,” he said. I saw the picture and my throat constricted. Anger, shame and hurt pulsed in my temples. I had supported Mr. Trudeau, admired his tenacity and goodwill, and worked for his government. His father was the reason my father was even allowed here. And yet, there he was, native son of wealth and privilege, having sung all the right tunes about diversity to get elected, caught engaging in one of the most humiliating forms of racist mockery. It felt like a personal betrayal.

I thought back to the children in the school playground who used to shout “Paki” at me. I thought of the scraps and fights and bruises and broken teeth. I thought of the kids in my university who dressed up in insulting costumes and drunkenly revelled in appropriating other people’s cultures for the night.

Even as an adult, I carry this shame around with me, do what I must to hide it, run from it, dissemble it. I thought of all the brown and black kids who must be wondering or suppressing the questions of why our leader did what he did. The flip-side of brownface and blackface are the actual brown and black faces ashamed of who they are.

These photos and video are not to be taken lightly. They are extreme manifestations of racist derision. Brownface and blackface arise out of minstrelsy and colonialism, taking the ancient form of domination by humiliating people the white man has conquered, wearing their distorted faces as masks for one’s amusement.

Wearing brownface is an intentional act, satiating the white man’s fetish for appropriating the colour and the attire of the dispossessed, to serve his own fantasies. British culture, wrote the historian Nupur Chaudhuri, had a “long heritage of negative sentiments toward dark-skinned persons. The ultimate negative symbol is the devil – black, hairy, horned, and hoofed.” An ugly history bellowed out of Mr. Trudeau’s gaze.

The question is not whether Mr. Trudeau was filled with racist hatred, and the response to this cannot be, “But Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer is worse.” The Liberal Leader wore blackface. Let’s start there. He said on Tuesday that he has not worn it since 2001, but that doesn’t change the fact that he was an adult who mocked people of colour for sport. He was innocent in a way that would be touching if it were not so repulsive. He is innocent, just like the country that seems to be shrugging this off. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime, a punishing innocence that cannot be easily forgiven.

Ever since Mr. Trudeau entered national politics, the actor-turned-leader had worn a mask that had been fitted so well for so long that part of him must have assumed its form. What lay underneath was the distempered face, the real face, the one that had been concealed.

He came from a rarefied social class that existed independently of real people’s lives, growing up in the prime minister’s official residence, surrounded by foreign dignitaries. He would have met heads of state from Africa and South Asia. It strains credulity to believe that he did not know exactly what he was doing when he blackened his skin.

Racism among the elite is hidden behind correctly phrased sentences and polite nods to fashionable ideas. People who have had the best of everything their whole lives also need you to know they have the best opinions.

This Canadian variant of racism is more insidious than the American: Protected by politeness, racism can be perpetuated under a shield of good intentions. This is also textbook neo-colonialism: The white man will govern us for our benefit, and anyone who opposes him will be slandered, or worse. Look at the plight of Indigenous peoples. Look at the racial makeup of who is incarcerated, detained, deported.

In Mr. Trudeau’s rise to power, there were other signs of a mind corrupted by privilege. The paid speeches he gave while an MP, despite his six-figure salary and trust fund. He told an American magazine that he wanted to box a “scrappy tough-guy senator from an Indigenous community.” The mistreatment of the former attorney-general. The costumes in India. What was evident was not just blindness, but a deliberate unwillingness to see, one that has caused our country great harm.

This brownface episode has made many people suddenly wake up to the reality that Canada may be racist. White Canadians may feel uncomfortable by all this, but minorities in this country have been dealing with discomfort since they looked in the mirror as children.

I am a prisoner of my own experience here. It had been my dream to work for Mr. Trudeau’s government on foreign policy. I had worked hard and earned the right to serve my country. I headed to Ottawa feeling optimistic and hopeful. But as soon as I got there, I felt that something was fundamentally wrong.

Everyone with real power was white and looked the same – unacceptable for a movement pledging racial diversity as a core principle. Condescending attitudes were regularly revealed. Minorities were undermined, ghettoized. The casual disregard of the privileged was systemic. I felt like I could not breathe.

After several months, I decided to leave of my own free will. It is still one of the hardest decisions I have made, and felt more like jumping off a building. The hurt ran deep. Friendships were broken. I felt that I had failed and my reality had been distorted beyond my recognition.

Weeks passed, my mental health worsened. I became isolated. When I worked up the courage to make some tepid critiques of the India trip online, a senior person from the Prime Minister’s Office wrote to me. Perhaps they finally wanted to listen?

No. I was told that no one trusted me there from the beginning, that I was in it for my own reasons and that I was self-regarding in my criticism. I was stunned. For months afterward, I blamed myself. I thought perhaps they were right – that I was another uppity brown person who was too impatient.

I questioned my own reality, and once again the internalized racism ravaged my mind. After all of that, to discover that Mr. Trudeau had a fondness for wearing my skin on his face. I had been played. All of us had.

We often speak of racism as though it is a purely emotional phenomenon, but racism manifests itself in the body, and the body responds to it like a virus. Cortisol levels spike, increasing the chance of almost every conceivable illness. An enormous amount of mental energy is expended trying to understand other people’s slights and to keep oneself under mental surveillance.

Your sense of reality becomes permanently distorted. You question your own dignity and worth. The sociology, the history, the economics, the privilege, the power, the whiteness: None capture how racism dislodges the body, cracks bones, shatters identities, turns the minority into an alien in his own skin. And for people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds and work their way to the elite – always having to be twice as good – their cells visibly age faster because of the stress response in dealing with discrimination. They have the longest distance to fall.

Racism is not a play thing or a wedge issue to be weaponized. It is the tragic story of our lives.

Canada, like the United States, remains a divided country. Official statistics do not reveal this, but segregation exists first in the mind, especially of those who have been blind their whole lives. Whiteness is a shelter from the realities of the world, realities Mr. Trudeau and his kind never faced until now because the joke was always on somebody else.

Apologies are not enough; they are a beginning, not an end. What we need now is a national reckoning of the sort we have never had. People must be held accountable in all parties. Painful grievances must be aired, uncomfortable truths spoken.

No one is free from their history, and silence is another form of lying. We must force ourselves to see the “Other” in our midst, truly see them. Our country has lied to itself enough already. Real change will happen only when Mr. Trudeau and his class have the courage to open their eyes and take a good look at what they’ve been missing. Until that day comes, we will remain in an infantile and morally duplicitous state of innocence.


  1. John says:

    Sometimes I wonder about my fellow citizens in Ontario. The National Post reports that half of voters won’t vote for Scheer because of Doug Ford trying to handle Wynne’s massive deficits. But will vote for a man who has gotten rid of two female cabinet ministers, has forced out two female MPs, groped a woman in B.C., broken the law twice, and likes to dress up in blackface. Funny old world isn’t it.

    • Wynne’s deficits has been exaggerated and Doug Ford is handling it recklessly and targetting the most vulnerable with his cuts.

      • Bill says:


        And what’s your thoughts on Trudeau? Perhaps you may have a coherent opinion on the piece from Omer Aziz?

        • His personal failings causes far less suffering then a Conservative government would. Vote NDP, where practical.

          • Bill says:

            And you comments on the piece written by Omer Aziz? Crickets…..

            BTW. A vote for NDP is a vote for Scheer. Thank you. Or as Trudeau would say. “Thank you for your contribution”

          • What he said was disappointing, although the Conservatives would never be blamed for failure of inclusiveness, becuase everyone knows they wouldn’t try.

            I happen to live in a Liberal-NDP swing riding. If there is a minority the Liberal could very well end up supporting a the Conservatives like they did so often last time, so a vote of the Liberals is a vote for Scheer.

      • Harry Belafonte says:

        Does one need to exaggerate $350 billion in debt? Sounds pretty bad on its own. What has he cut exactly, we just set a record for spending under Ford. Would love to know.

        I did hear a rumour the first thing Scheer was going to cut once in office was the makeup and costume department. Those are probably pretty vulnerable people. Eggs and omelettes I guess.

      • The Doctor says:

        Actually deficits don’t matter. And it’s ok to lie about them too. Just ask JT.

      • Douglas W says:

        Because of McGuinty and Wynne, Ontario pays $1-billion $200-million dollars a month to service the interest on its debt. This is not exaggeration. See for yourself.

    • the real Sean says:

      John – Exactly what I’ve been thinking… How much angst can DOFO be causing Ontarians that the solution is to vote for racism, sexism, incompetence and corruption? I don’t get it.

    • Derek Pearce says:

      (I’m not voting for Trudeau) but Ford has actually INCREASED spending since taking power while picking fights with groups of people for no reason. Wynne’s deficits my ass.

  2. Shane says:

    Extremely powerful. As a Canadian who has lived abroad as a visible minority, and as the father of a mixed race child I have witnessed and felt the effects of racism firsthand in a way I never could as a white boy growing up in Canada. The experiences changed me. I don’t think I can ever remember reading anything that lets a reader understand what the effects of racism do to an individual in the way this piece does. Thank you for posting this.

    • PK says:

      Canada has a lot of racism, but discrimination in general – racism being one kind of discrimination. Anybody from an immigrant family knows that in Canada you confront ignorance more often than not – we aren’t as progressive as we shop ourselves – going through a school system staffed by old stock, as a person from an immigrant family, you realize how isolated and clueless they really are –

      • PK says:

        What I find obnoxious is that people think in terms of elitism – that the image is sought after – because i have met a lot of people who consider themselves elites, and i never see it. I’ve met senior executives, or “local” elites with a family name – i never experience the rational because in their presence it’s always a big let down. They feel smaller and isolated. Maybe being from an immigrant family exposes you to more so it’s hard to take them seriously –

  3. Peter says:

    Mr. Aziz’s experience may be completely accurate, especially considering the crowd he was dealing with, but we only have his word for it at this point. However, I have a lot of trouble with his shift into his general critique of Canadian society. There are a lot of individual objections that can be made. In seventy years I’ve never worn or come across anyone in blackface and I wouldn’t have been amused if I had, so what white “fetish” is he talking about? Piggybacking on the plight and history of indigenous peoples whose story bears no resemblance to that of first and second generation non-white Canadians strikes me as a huge conceit. And if I’m existentially stained by hundreds of years of white history, why is he not similarly tainted by his?

    We now have a multi-racial society and change has to come to make sure everyone feels included and respected. So let’s talk about those changes. But if the dialogue consist of me sitting quietly and listening to long lectures on how the looks on my face betray a racist essence and how “I” bear individual responsibility for the whole history of empire and colonialism, and how I represent some kind of exclusive culture that oppresses and patronizes people who don’t look like me, I’m not buying it and my participation will not be sincere. That’s not what I see when I go out in my community and I’m fairly sure it’s not how I speak or act. More to the point, that is not the way to promote inter-ethnic respect and equality in the public square. It might, however, be the way to drive people into the arms of types like Bernier and other extremists, a point made eloquently by the ever-insightful Andrew Sullivan in the past couple of weeks.

    • Phil says:

      Sorry I beg to differ and I struggle to the realization our society needs a fix. Not trying to shift Trudeau’s failures to society he’s tried that himself.
      The issue is 1/3 of our society if you believe the polls will vote liberal despite this most offensive failure.
      That number is likely higher. I’m sure that some conservative/ppc/bloq supporters are more offended that Trudeau may be receiving benefit of a double standard and are as outraged at that as his actions.
      So privileged white male here has come to a grave conclusion WE NEED TO ACKNOWLEDGE OUR SOCIETAL FAILURES ALLOWING THIS TO GO UNPUNISHED

    • Not Justin says:

      Bingo. Omer’s transition from Trudeau’s multiple racist acts to pinning it on all Canadians is simply wrong. It was clear as day what he was seeking to do. If he wanted to write about racist Canada he ought not conflate it with our disgraceful PM’s conduct. I also wonder about his naivete when heading off to Ottawa. I am never surprised by how low the Liberal party can go, while he seemed genuinely surprised that they routinely put everyone into little voting bins based on race, gender, income and national origin. Sadly, that is the modern Liberal party. His naivete may also have led him to believe that as an employed member of the Liberal team, he was equal to longstanding members. In reality, no business works that way, here or anywhere else. His experience clearly demonstrated that a small group of back-room, corporate and elitist white guys from Montreal run not only the party but the puppet at the helm. This, too, is something I have long known. On the bright side, Omer, you learned a lot and, more importantly, you escaped from the Liberal deathtrap mindset. I wish you success with your next position.

      • Fred from BC says:

        “Bingo. Omer’s transition from Trudeau’s multiple racist acts to pinning it on all Canadians is simply wrong.”

        I think a potentially powerful article was ruined by his descent into over-the-top histrionics.

        (so, no Halloween costumes allowed, then? Yeah…not on board with that, sorry…)

  4. Phil says:

    Wow! Grew up in small town Ontario in the 1970s. If not for television I am not sure I would have even known of any other races. That ignorance aside my upbringing was to treat all equally. I’m not perfect but I’m beginning to see the reality that my nation is not the place of refuge for some that I’ve been programmed to believe. I used to think I didn’t owe the world an apology for simply being a white male. Now I am sorry for not calling out others actions and for being careless in any with my own words and deeds. I don’t know what to think anymore because I still hope most white males are not treating others like this out of habit. None that are should have a place on a ballot.

    • Fred from BC says:

      “Wow! Grew up in small town Ontario in the 1970s. If not for television I am not sure I would have even known of any other races.”

      I saw my first black people (two kids 10-12 years old) in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond when I was 14 years old. They probably wondered why I was staring at them…

  5. Bill says:

    Wow – a very strong piece! It should make everyone take a closer look at oneself.

    Liberals are blinded by self-serving, self important superiority. They fail to see the Emperor has no clothes, (except when he’s in full Indian costume) and are willing to vote for a self-centred hypocrite, who has made his way through life on his name and privilege. The LPC appointed him leader, not for his brains (hate to state the obvious) but for Brand appeal. I’m wondering what’s been said behind closed doors at LPC HQ? Where are the voices of the gutless liberal MP’s who stand behind this sanctimonious fraud – why are they not calling him out for what he is, he’s an imposter and shallow excuse of a man. He calls himself a feminist and a defender of racial diversity – we now know he is neither.

    I applaud Omer Aziz, and only hope others follow his lead. Again we see the PMO intimidating both when Omer was working in the PMO, and after he left of his own accord. I expect Trudeau and the PMO are following instructions in the how to run government hand book, Chinese style. Gerry Butts, the puppeteer, king maker and PMO bully is behind most or perhaps all of Trudeau’s rise to the top, must have known of Trudeau’s penchant for blackface and the groping episode. He has a lot to answer to.

    I wish Omer Aziz well, perhaps a stint in the CPC war room may help exorcize his bad experience with Trudeau and the liberals.

    Trudeau – Not As Advertised!

  6. John says:

    Feminist Trudeau was asked by a reporter today about the female MP who was forced out. He stated that she was not removed for the reasons she gave. So in other words, she is either lying or she experienced it differently. And reporters finally chastised him for not actually answering questions given to him.

  7. Bob Dobalina says:

    I am a Liberal troll. I support a racist leader. Send me spam at bob.dobalina@hotmail.com

  8. Derek Pearce says:

    All I can say after reading this– and I’ll have to take the time to read it again– is that recently (even before the blackface revelations) it’s occurred to me that though I live in T.O. I live a remarkably segregated life. Since graduating from UW 20 years ago my social life and work life have gotten very much LESS diverse over the years. This is in “the most multicultural city in the world” (gag). I’m flummoxed as to what to think further about it, other than noting it’s happened. And yes I know dining in Little India or Chinatown does not count. Just something to further think about while I live my little middle-class life I guess….

    • whyshouldIsellyourwheat says:

      The Laurentian elites in Canada control access to the industries of influence…i.e. the media, publishing, PR, political infrastructure, banking and finance, etc…through unpaid internships, which is why Toronto is white on top and brown on the middle and bottom. A few outsiders are allowed in to give a patina of diversity.

      Unpaid internships have proven far more successful with less complaints than Bill 21 in Quebec.

      Gatekeeping by unpaid internships has to be outlawed

  9. Dan Blackstone says:

    Ok, pretty sure I heard this name in a quirky song way back in the early 70’s..

    Other than hearing it, I have no recollection on who performed it etc.

  10. Dan Blackstone says:

    If this clown gets elected again, which I think is more than likely going to happen as I have ZERO faith in the general electorate – what does that say to the rest of the world about Canada, whose status on the world stage would be, to put it lightly, embarrassing.

    And riddle me this, should he get in with a minority propped up by dippers & greens (also a likely scenario), which for all practical reasons would mean the end of the Canadian oil industry – what possible reason does Alberta, and to a lesser extent, Saskatchewan, have to remain in confederation?

    • Be it in ten, twenty or thirty years, Alberta will need the rest of Canada when the oil industry inevitably ends.

      • Derek Pearce says:

        Bingo. I’ve always felt Canada as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts but now I’m ready to see Alberta leave. Just go already and lets have some TRULY hardnose negotiations. GTFO. Let you sell your tar exclusively through the US. Bon chance. Or if we come to an agreement where some of it can be sold through the Remaining Canada, you’ll get less for it and we’ll genuinely tax the shit out of it as a foreign transport and use that $$ for good. Alberta overestimate its contribution to our country period. Be gone and let’s compete against each other as true foreigners.

      • Chris says:

        Here in Alberta there is a pulpible, seething anger that Trudeau would change one law and break another to save jobs in Quebec, but barely lift a finger for anyone in Alberta (buying an un-built pipeline expansion doesn’t count.) If he cancels TMX the Alberta-BC border is going to be shut down by mobs of unemployed energy workers (200,000 of us) and their immediate families (another 300,000). Trudeau will have to decide if he wants to unleash a national unity crisis to save his own skin.

        • Chris,

          With respect, prognostication on hypotheticals is pie-in-the-sky. Wait for the damned decision and then take it from there. Alberta will then do what it has to do. Period. And so will we eventually in Quebec. One day we will be out too. I’m 50% + 1 for Alberta, or any other jurisdiction, not just Quebec.

  11. Dan Blackstone says:

    My first comment was supposed to be a reply to the “Bob Dobalina” post – which was the name I was referring to. I remember now I think it was a Monkee’s song, and IIRC they took it from someone else..

  12. Walter says:

    Mr. Aziz loses all credibility with the following statement: “This brownface episode has made many people suddenly wake up to the reality that Canada may be racist. ”
    It’s not Canada – it’s Trudeau, and those who support him. The majority of Canadians have never wore blackface, have never groped a woman, and dressed in Bollywood clothes, and never said that indigenous chief don’t know what they are doing because youth want canoe sheds.
    Canadians are a good people – likely the best on earth. I am tired of being tarred the same as a person I have nothing in common with, and never have, or never would, support.

    • Fred from BC says:

      If everyone is a racist, then no one is.

    • Ronald O'Dowd says:

      But what’s self-evident is that pretty much all of us have had racist thoughts. When they come, at random, I reject them and fight them. But yes, they do come, even for a progressive.

      Racism is an outright obscenity and no one should ever give in to those kind of thoughts. Because respecting, or even tolerating, one’s own racism is both inhumane and immoral.

  13. John says:

    The gullibility of Canadian voters never ceases to amaze me. Whether you agree with the other parties climate change policies or not, at least they are outlined and costed. Trudeau states he has no policies yet, and no costing, but he will think about it after the election. Trust us. And of course no mention of how much he will raise the carbon taxes. Meanwhile the National Post reports that is Environment Minister blocked messages from the Climate Strike people because they said negative things about Trudeau’s policies.

  14. Peter says:

    But what’s self-evident is that pretty much all of us have had racist thoughts.

    How do you know that, Ronald? Why is it self-evident? And if it’s true, is it just true for whites or is it a universal phenomenon? And if it’s a universal phenomenon, should our politics take on the task of curing us of such thoughts? Should we be policing one another about what is going on in our heads? It seems to me the only political systems that do that are theocracies and totalitarian regimes. Neither is very pleasant to live under.

  15. John says:

    Keep up the great work, Mr. Kinsella. Hopefully your next column about Trudeau’s racist nickname for Jagmeet Singh will(that you alluded to in your column today) emerges before JT has a chance to march in Montreal tomorrow. That’d be a glorious way to “rain on his parade”, so to speak. Additionally, any of the “more to come” juicy Trudeau scandals/dirt that you’ve alluded to recently (including with Adrian Batra on “Batra’s Battleground” and also on Evan Solomon’s radio show where he agreed “more is coming this week”) can hurry up and arrive anytime now. You’ve alluded to Bob Fife and “why did Trudeau leave West Point Grey Academy?” ). Canadians are eagerly awaiting all of that, increasingly. Thanks again. Best regards.

  16. John says:

    No fear mongering at the Liberal Party. New ads from the Liberals trash legal gun owners and even show pictures of Conservative MPs including Scheer firing guns. Can’t wait for the old Soldiers Marching In The Streets ads to return.

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