A yearbook photo of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing brownface makeup at a 2001 costume party was released on Wednesday.
Time magazine has posted the photo, which it says was published in the yearbook from the West Point Grey Academy, a private school in Vancouver, where Trudeau worked as a teacher before entering politics.
The report describes the occasion as an “Arabian Nights”-themed gala event. The photo depicts Trudeau wearing a turban and robe, with dark makeup on his hands, face and neck.
Liberal spokesman Cameron Ahmad confirmed the photo is of Trudeau, who delivered an abject apology during an emergency news conference on Wednesday aboard the party's campaign plane.
“I shouldn't have done it,” a stone-faced Trudeau said, adding he is “deeply disappointed” in himself. “I should have known better,” he said, adding, “I didn't consider it a racist action at the time.”
Ahmad explained in a statement that the photo was taken in 2001, while Trudeau was teaching in Vancouver and attending the school's annual dinner, which had a costume theme of “Arabian Nights.”
“He attended with friends and colleagues dressed as a character from Aladdin,” Ahmad said.
The picture depicts the now-Liberal leader alongside four young women — his hands draped over one of them — in what appear to be cocktail dresses.
So-called blackface images have been a frequent source of controversy in recent years, predominantly in the United States, where last year a number of prominent state politicians were forced to apologize for similar yearbook images that surfaced publicly.
But the image represents a crisis moment for Trudeau, whose political brand as Liberal leader and prime minister has been forged by themes of tolerance, inclusivity and racial harmony.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who was taking part in a town hall meeting when the news broke, said it's becoming clear Trudeau's public persona may not be an accurate reflection of who he is.
“I think he needs to answer for it. I think he's got to answer the question why he did that and what does that say about what he thinks about people who, because of who they are, because of the colour of their skin, face challenges and barriers and obstacles in their life,” Singh said.
“Who is the real Mr. Trudeau? Is it the one behind closed doors, the one when the cameras are turned off that no one sees?” Singh asked. “Is that the real Mr. Trudeau? Because more and more, it seems like it is.”
The National Council of Canadian Muslims wasted little time calling on Trudeau to explain the “deeply saddening” photo.
“The wearing of blackface/brownface is reprehensible and hearkens back to a history of racism, slavery and an Orientalist mythology that is unacceptable,” executive director Mustafa Farooq said.
“While we recognize that people can change and evolve over two decades, it is critical that the prime minister immediately and unequivocally apologize."