'I know him in a completely different way': Liberal candidates on Trudeau's racist photos

Warning: This story contains an offensive term

OTTAWA - Visible minority MP candidates under the Liberal Party banner have weighed in after a video and photos surfaced showing their leader in brownface and blackface.

Harjit Sajjan, who serves as Justin Trudeau’s minister of national defence, said he’s spoken with the party leader and accepts his apology for wearing brownface and blackface on three separate occasions, most recently in 2001.

A bombshell report by TIME Magazine published Wednesday evening showed a photo of the Liberal leader at an "Arabian Nights" dinner, dressed as Aladdin with his skin painted brown.

The photo was displayed in a 2000-2001 yearbook for West Point Grey Academy, the private Vancouver school where Trudeau taught.

Sajjan said he can move past these incidents with the understanding that Trudeau’s actions in the years since have shown a respect for diversity.

"I know him in a completely different way. I know him privately, I consider him a friend," said Sajjan. "He has always been a very strong advocate for diversity, for calling out racism extremely aggressively not just in Canada but internationally as well."

He pointed to Trudeau’s firm leadership in welcoming thousands of Syrian refugees back in 2015, as an example of this.

He said while apologies are fine and good, action is what Trudeau should be judged on.

"Think about it this way, he gave me the responsibility to be the minister of national defence, one of the most powerful institutions in our society," he added. "A person has to be genuine when he gives responsibility like that."

Sajjan said the racism he experienced as a young Sikh hasn’t gone away, decades later.

"It reminds me how strong we have to be. I want to surround myself around people who are going to continually advocate against it."

His colleague Randeep Sarai, a fellow Sikh who’s running in the riding of Surrey Centre, relayed similar sentiments in an interview with CTVNews.ca.

"I was saddened to see these photos come out yesterday. For me, it’s difficult to understand, the person in these photos from 20 years ago is not the person I’ve worked for in the last four years. The Justin Trudeau I know has an impeccable record promoting diversity."

Like Sajjan, he accepts Trudeau’s apology and said he would be more worried if his policies or platforms didn’t add up to what he was promoting on the public stage.

"Everything I’ve seen whether it’s been behind closed doors, in public in private, in non-official settings, is a Justin Trudeau that is very tolerant,” said Sarai. “I don’t think anyone else has ever done [an apology] as sincere as he has in a situation like this."

Sarai also said he can point to numerous examples in his career, specifically door-knocking, when he’s faced racist remarks.

"I’ve had people tell me they won’t vote for me because they don’t vote for rag heads; I’ve had people close the door on me. Yes, absolutely. But have I felt it in my party or in government, no."

Speaking in Ottawa this morning, African-Canadian Liberal candidate Greg Fergus said he had a "really good conversation about this" with the Liberal leader.

"There was a lot of confusion and hurt last night by the black community," he said. "But I will say this to all of you, I don’t believe that anybody has ever lived their lives without making errors."

The candidate for Hull-Aylmer also pointed to examples where Trudeau has promoted the rights of marginalized communities, including when he supported putting civil rights pioneer Viola Desmond on Canada’s $10 bill.

"I think that’s really the measure of the man and that’s why I have confidence in his continued leadership."

Amarjeet Sohi, an Indo-Canadian who was named Trudeau’s minister of natural resources, also commented on the images, which show the Liberal leader in blackface at a different venue in the 1990s.

"I was very disheartened and disappointed to see these images. These indefensible images bring back many painful memories of racism that I and other racialized Canadians have experienced throughout our lives,” said Sohi in a public statement shared on Twitter.

"… I have spoken with the Prime Minister to convey my feelings and reiterated that we must redouble our efforts to end racism in this country. I have spent my life fighting racism — in my city and my country — and I will continue to do so because there is more work left to do,” he added.

In an interview with CTV News Kitchener, Bardish Chagger, also an Indo-Canadian and formally the government house leader, said she could tell Trudeau was genuine in his apology despite having not personally talked to him yet.

"I could tell that he regretted the decision he made. I could tell he knew it was wrong,” said Chagger. “We need to do better but I can’t think of anyone who’s going to build a more inclusive society than Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party.”

She added that her own volunteers have faced “hurtful and hateful” comments at the doors while campaigning on her behalf.

Trudeau delivered a second formal apology to supporters in Winnipeg on Thursday afternoon. He admitted he was the product of "layers of privilege" but said he’s committed to working on bettering his actions.

Chagger said she and her colleagues are prepared to have “tough conversations” going forward with their leader to help him achieve this.

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