Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal steals show at B’nai Brith debate

From left, moderator David Elmaleh, Liberal candidate Gary Gladstone, Conservative candidate Peter Kent and Green candidate Josh Rachlis participate in a debate in Thornhill, Ont., on Sept. 19.

The scandal involving photos of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dressed in blackface took centre stage, when three candidates in Thornhill, Ont., squared off in an election debate hosted by B’nai Brith Canada on Sept. 19.

Liberal candidate Gary Gladstone acknowledged Trudeau’s apology for wearing blackface and brownface on three separate occasions spanning from the 1990s to 2001. In the most recent photo, Trudeau was a substitute teacher at a private school in Vancouver and dressed up as Aladdin for an Arabian Nights-themed party.

Gladstone said he was “deeply disappointed in the photos and videos,” but that he accepted Trudeau’s two apologies and believe them to be sincere. He highlighted Trudeau’s efforts to promote equality, pointing to the first balanced cabinet of men and women and Canada’s first Muslim minister. “Actions speak louder than words,” Gladstone said.

Conservative incumbent Peter Kent, who has represented the riding of Thornhill for 11 years, dug into the Liberal’s open wound and reminded the audience of B’nai Brith’s “vigilance” in revealing a Liberal candidate with a history of anti-Semitic comments. Less than a month ago, the Liberals revoked Hassan Guillet’s candidacy in Quebec, because due to his previous social media posts. Kent noted the hypocrisy of Trudeau punishing a candidate for his past actions.

In the question-and-answer period, Gladstone took aim at the Tories, when he was asked how he would approach a national autism and disabilities plan, which he said was an “intensely personal” subject. For the past three years, Gladstone has been the director of stakeholder relations at the Reena Foundation and advocated for $1.5 million in government grants to build housing for Canadians with developmental disabilities.

“We know the cost of Conservative cuts,” Gladstone said, referring to Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s changes to the province’s autism program. If elected, Gladstone told The CJN that his primary goal would be to bring tikun olam to Parliament.


Without any provocation, Green party candidate Josh Rachlis approached his own party’s record of supporting BDS and espousing anti-Semitic sentiments. At the Maclean’s-Citytv national leaders debate on Sept. 12, Green Leader Elizabeth May fiercely objected to Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer’s campaign promises to cut funding to UNRWA, the United Nations’ refugee agency in Gaza, and move the Canadian embassy to Jerusalem. Likewise, in 2016, the Green party endorsed a resolution to support BDS. “My party is wrong for voting for BDS. I want to change that,” Rachlis said.

Rachlis is not on the ballet yet, but has accumulated about 107 signatures of the minimum 100 required. About 25 per cent of signatures usually get discounted if they are not legible or there is incomplete information, according to Rachlis. As a precaution, he is seeking more. The candidate described himself as “not a political expert,” but was interested in learning from voters. In 2011, he was spurred to get involved in politics, after tweeting May an eco-comedy love song, which received extensive media coverage and a reply from the party leader.

All three candidate unanimously supported B’nai Brith’s eight-point plan to combat anti-Semitism in Canada. Among the organization’s goals, founding institutes dedicated to combatting hate crimes in every major city and enhancing training for police officers are at the top of the list. Statistics Canada data on the number of police-reported hate crimes in 2018 confirmed B’nai Brith’s annual audit, which found that Jewish people are the most targeted religious group in the country.

The NDP did not participate in the debate, as it did not have a candidate in place in time.