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Justin Trudeau's progressive public image butts up against a series of scandals

Justin Trudeau has long cultivated a public persona as a "woke" champion of socially progressive values.

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Eric Levenson
CNN — Justin Trudeau has long cultivated a public persona as a "woke" champion of socially progressive values.

In office, he has proudly proclaimed he is a feminist and proposed legislation to tackle gender pay equity. He has personally welcomed Syrian refugees to the country. And he has offered formal apologies on behalf of the Canadian government for how it treated indigenous people and LGBTQ2 people.

But despite those public positions, a series of issues away from the cameras threatens to take down his chances of remaining Prime Minister in the federal election next month.

Wednesday's revelation that Trudeau had darkened his face for an "Arabian Nights" event in 2001, when he was a school teacher, was just another example of the contrast between what critics see as the two Trudeaus.

"We see one Mr. Trudeau in public. I'll be honest with you, he seems really nice, really friendly, very warm in public. But behind closed doors he seems like a different Mr. Trudeau," said Jagmeet Singh, a Sikh politician with Canada's New Democratic party.

"Who is the real Mr. Trudeau? Is it the one behind closed doors? The one when all the cameras are turned off and when no one sees, is that the real Mr. Trudeau? Because more and more that seems like it is."

Trudeau in brownface

Trudeau was forced to apologize Wednesday after Time, a CNN affiliate, posted a photo of him wearing brownface when he was a teacher in 2001.

"I shouldn't have done it. I should have known better, but I didn't. And I'm really sorry," he told reporters on an airplane.

"It was something I didn't think was racist at the time, but it was," he added. "It was a dumb thing to do."

Trudeau attended the event with friends and colleagues and was dressed as a character from "Aladdin," said Zita Astravas, speaking on behalf of Trudeau's party, the Liberal Party of Canada. He was wearing a turban.

In addition, Trudeau told reporters he also wore makeup when he dressed up for a talent show in high school and sang "Day-O," a song made popular by Harry Belafonte in the 1950s.

Late Wednesday, CNN partner CTV News obtained a second photo from a source, who says it is a picture of Trudeau in a yearbook at Brebeuf College.

Trudeau came in for criticism from people across the political spectrum. His political rival, Conservative Andrew Scheer, said he was "extremely shocked and disappointed" to learn of the incident.

"Wearing brownface is an act of open mockery and racism," Scheer said. "It was just as racist in 2001 as it is in 2019. What Canadians saw this evening was someone with a complete lack of judgment and integrity and someone who's not fit to govern this county."

In addition, Singh, the New Democratic politician to the left of Trudeau's Liberal party, said it was "troubling" and "insulting."

"It's making a mockery of someone for what they live (like) and what their lived experiences are," he said.

Scandal-filled trip to India

Trudeau made a number of blunders and missteps during a week-long trip to India in February 2018, particularly related to his government's alleged indulgence of Sikh separatists.

The issue reached a head after it was revealed that Jaspal Atwal, a militant Sikh separatist convicted of attempting to murder an Indian politician in Canada, had been invited to at least two Canadian government-linked events, including an official dinner with Trudeau at the Canadian High Commissioner's residence in New Delhi.

The dinner invitation, which was later withdrawn, sparked outrage in parts of India, where Sikh separatism remains a highly charged topic.

"Obviously we take this situation extremely seriously. The individual in question never should have received an invitation. As soon as we found out, we rescinded the invitation immediately," Trudeau said.

Groping accusation

In July 2018, Trudeau was asked about an unsigned editorial dating to 2000 that alleged he groped a female reporter at a charity fundraiser when he was 28. The editorial did not provide any details but said Trudeau "blatantly disrespected" the reporter.

Trudeau said last year that he did not remember "any negative interactions" from that day.

However, the former newspaper reporter spoke out in July 2018 and said the allegations in the editorial are true, but that she considered the matter closed.

Trudeau said that he apologized to the woman at the time.

"I do not feel that I acted inappropriately in any way. But I respect the fact that someone else might have experienced that differently and this is part of the reflections that we have to go through," he said.

SNC-Lavalin affair

In February, The Globe and Mail reported that Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former minister of justice and attorney general, had been pressured to help the Quebec-based construction company SNC-Lavalin settle a criminal case and avoid prosecution over allegations of bribery.

Wilson-Raybould, who later resigned, alleged in testimony that she faced "veiled threats" and "sustained" pressure to help SNC-Lavalin, a major employer in Canada. A conviction in the case would keep the company from getting government contracts for a decade.

Gerald Butts, Trudeau's top aide, resigned amid accusations he pressured the former attorney general. Jane Philpott, who had held several jobs in Trudeau's Cabinet before becoming Treasury Board president, also resigned, saying she lost confidence in the government's handling of an inquiry into the allegations.

The resignations of the two Cabinet members hurt Trudeau's vision of promoting feminism and helping indigenous people, Daniel Beland, director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, said at the time. Wilson-Reybould is an indigenous woman and Philpott had been minister of Indigenous Services.

Ethics commissioner Mario Dion released a report in August saying that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act by interfering in the case and attempting to pressure Wilson-Raybould.

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