Stephane Mahe / Reuters

The Woke Will Always Break Your Heart

In September, Time obtained photographs of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in brownface at a 2001 party. After the images surfaced, Stephen Marche wrote that Canadian progressives must decide, as they prepare to vote in Monday’s federal election, whether they care more about Trudeau’s policy achievements or the pursuit of social and cultural change through the eradication of racist and sexist imagery.

“If voters who believe in multiculturalism cannot forgive face paint,” he argued, “the multicultural project as policy may not survive.”


Stephen Marche is always a pleasure to read, sharp in his sentences and provocative in his arguments. However, his recent piece for The Atlantic is misleading and erroneous in the choice it presents for progressives. And its discussion of brownface is especially depressing.

Marche makes a bold assertion in the essay: Justin Trudeau, he tells us, is “measurably, demonstrably the most sincere and effective prime minister in living memory.” Sincere is a curious word to use about a man who not four weeks ago was apologizing profusely for having dressed up in racist costumes through his entire 20s. Marche’s evidence for the “effective” part is an academic assessment that shows Trudeau kept 92 percent of his election promises, fully or partially. Marche does not break these numbers down. In fact, Trudeau fully kept 53.5 percent of his promises and partially kept 38.5 percent. For comparison, Stephen Harper, the previous, Conservative prime minister, fully kept 77 percent of his promises and partially kept 7 percent. While the authors suggest that not all promises are created equally (Harper made many “transactional” promises, which target subpopulations, whereas Trudeau made many “transformative” promises), one could read the same assessment and conclude that Harper was “the most sincere and effective” prime minister in recent memory. (I write this as someone who worked as a policy adviser in the Office of the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Trudeau government.)

Of course, getting into statistics about the exact percentage of promises Trudeau kept is distracting because of the promises Trudeau broke. These were the Liberal Party’s signature issues last election. Trudeau promised electoral reform and junked the idea as soon as it was met with resistance. He promised serious progress on indigenous issues and yet indigenous people are in a grave crisis. He promised a new way of doing politics, where transparency and accountability were paramount, yet was found to have broken ethics laws twice by Parliament’s conflict-of-interest and ethics commissioner. He shut down multiple inquiries and investigations into his office, specifically related to the SNC-Lavalin affair, where he and a few other officials pressured Canada’s attorney general in an attempt to circumvent the prosecution of a well-connected company on corruption charges. Liberals will rue the day such unethical behavior was simply rationalized away for the sake of power, when similar abuses are committed by another political party in the future. The blunt truth is that Canadian democracy has suffered under Trudeau.

Holding Trudeau up as a progressive paragon, Marche then lays down the pragmatist’s verdict: “Canadian progressives, like progressives all over the world, must decide whether they care more about the pursuit of social and cultural change, through the eradication of racist and sexist imagery, or the pursuit of transformative policies.” Notice the false dichotomy presented here as inevitability. Framing the progressive dilemma as a choice between “style” (wokeness) and “substance” (policy) is too simplistic. An officeholder’s style—in my opinion, their character, judgment, reasons for seeking power, and the story they tell and persuade you to believe in—is a perfectly legitimate area for investigation and critique. And if anyone benefited from and exploited the culture of the “woke,” it was Trudeau himself.

Voters were drawn to Trudeau in the first place because of his style as well as his substance. It is a mark of deep lament that Trudeau bears the distinction of getting so many young people excited about politics for the first time and then disappointing them within a single term. “I wasn’t cynical before Trudeau,” a Palestinian Canadian friend remarked to me last month. He was resigned, not even angry. It is a sentiment that could be echoed by many people in the vital suburbs outside Toronto where the upcoming election will be decided.

Marche’s treatment of brownface is superficial at best. First, he moves the goalposts by arguing that how racist Trudeau’s brownface episode was is “subject to debate.” Marche cites Sunny Khurana, the Sikh man who appears next to a grinning, blacked-up Trudeau in the photos, who says he did not find the brownface appearance racist. This was a point that many in Canada’s media made. I suspect Marche knew that this was a glib defense, and one that amplified a single, unrepresentative minority above a multitude who were genuinely hurt and shocked by the photos. Unbeknownst to most liberal whites, there is a vibrant “brown uncle” tradition of excusing and looking away from racism, either out of ignorance or trepidation. To this day, my father has admitted only once that he endured racism in Canada. Silence is a weapon of the shamed, and excusing the racism of a wealthy, flamboyant, powerful son of privilege does not lessen the damage or hurt.

Finally, Marche’s insinuation that progressives must choose between Trudeau and the Conservatives—which is also the Liberal Party’s messaging—is a disservice to the many progressives let down by Trudeau’s behavior. As Canada nears election day, it is important to frame the debate accurately. The other major stories of this election have been the resurgence of the Green Party, as well as the near-flawless performance of Jagmeet Singh, the leader of Canada’s social-democratic party (the New Democratic Party), who has met and exceeded every expectation placed on him, while having his very right to stand for the premiership questioned. Progressives have a range of options, and in a parliamentary system, citizens should vote to have their preferences heard, rather than vote purely out of fear. A splintered Parliament, governing a fractured country, is likely the most representative choice of all.

Omer Aziz
New York, N.Y.

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