Whitewater and blackface: The backstory on the Trudeau clip that shocked the world

It is a racist shame by any measure, a self-imposed humiliation that will cling to Justin Trudeau for life, regardless of how Canada’s next election ends up.

But bad as it is — bad as it will always be — there is one especially painful facet of the Trudeau blackface scandal that can now be dismissed, as evidenced by higher-resolution images obtained by the Toronto Star.

The images — taken from a previously undisclosed, uncompressed version of the blurry video of a 23-year-old Trudeau leaping about in blackface at an end-of-summer bash in the Laurentians — confirm that the splash of yellow on the future Liberal leader’s shirt is not the intentionally racist trope many took it to be.

Those aren’t bananas, the pictures show. The splash of yellow is from an image of a tropical bird. A drawing of a toucan, to be precise. The future prime minister is wearing a bird shirt.

A handful of online sleuths already had their doubts about Trudeau’s so-called “banana T-shirt” when the blurry yet damning clip was released last week by the Conservative campaign war room to Global News — and instantly thereafter, all the world’s screens.

But for thousands of partisans on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, there was no question about the fuzzy, open-to-interpretation visuals: the “banana T-shirt” was undeniable evidence of premeditated, hateful intent.

The now very clear toucan T-shirt images were found on a trove of old hard drives by whitewater rafting expert Rob Gravelle, who worked alongside Trudeau half a lifetime ago as a river guide at New World Rafting in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge.

When the Star reached out to Gravelle last weekend, it was in search of the backstory of how the devastating clip came to be. He was there at the party and witnessed the blackface antics that may yet determine Trudeau’s political fate.

YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN…

His curiosity piqued, Gravelle combed through some 13 terabytes of footage and stills stored on long-forgotten hard drives, many of them replete with clips of Trudeau as a young man. The blackface video shown by Global is there in his archive — but it’s an earlier, uncompressed digital version, with superior detail.

Gravelle, 43, told the Star even he was surprised to spot the toucan, believing the shirt to be bananas based on the blurry Global News clip.

An image captured from a video made in the 1990s shows Justin Trudeau at a party where he wore blackface makeup. The toucan on his T-shirt was initially mistaken for bananas.

And he’s not pretending it makes all that much of a difference. Though he counts himself to this day as a friend of Trudeau, the damage is done, not just by the scene from the Laurentians, but by the separate blackface revelations from before and after — the high school photo of Trudeau as Harry Belafonte and the Aladdin motif Trudeau assumed as a schoolteacher at age 29.

Speaking to the Star in a telephone interview — and in a long series of text and image exchanges that followed — Gravelle said the scandal has forced harsh inward reflection upon the close-knit scene of mostly white whitewater adrenalin junkies that Trudeau belonged to in his youthful prime.

They all witnessed the making of Trudeau’s blackface shame, the 50 or so who were there that night at the New World Rafting bash.

YOU MIGHT BE INTERESTED IN…

Here’s how Gravelle sees blackface now, in 2019: “It’s as bad as wearing a Nazi suit in my eyes, because of the terror it represents.” But as recently as five years ago, he acknowledged, “I would have been more ignorant.”

Back when the video was made, life was all about the sheer joy of riding Quebec’s cascading Riviere Rouge, as it tumbles down out of the Laurentian Mountains into the Ottawa River. As guides, most lived together, played together, rafted together — and got paid for it. Some of the hardcore Rouge rafters, including Trudeau, spent winters in the West, as ski instructors in Whistler, B.C.

Gravelle overlapped with Trudeau in this scene for six years, both on the Rouge and in the winters at Whistler — and once looked up to him almost like a big brother. His last face-to-face conversation with Trudeau was in Whistler in 1998, just a few days after the tragic death of Trudeau’s younger brother Michel in an avalanche during a backcountry ski trip in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park.

Gravelle never left the Rouge River scene — today he runs his own whitewater operation, Arundel Rafting, albeit along a calmer, less dangerous stretch nearer to Mont Tremblant.

Get The Lead newsletter

Start getting your whip-smart guide to Canada’s 2019 federal election in your inbox.

Sign Up Now

And while he readily admits to a pro-Trudeau bias, he says it’s personal, not political. He remembers how Trudeau showed character as a young guide, citing one particularly hair-raising incident in which Trudeau risked hypothermia to ensure the safe escape of five passengers trapped in the springtime phenomenon on the Rouge known as the White Dog.

Gravelle has written with great reverence about the White Dog for various whitewater enthusiast publications, including DBPmagazine. It’s a springtime phenomenon — you don’t get the White Dog unless the water is exceptionally high, but when it comes the wave surfing is glorious — and dangerous.

“The most time I’ve ever spent in the White Dog is maybe two or three minutes. But that day on Justin’s raft, they were caught for something like 20 minutes. It was a potentially hypothermic situation — but he stuck with it and kept his cool. He got the five people to jump into the freezing river one by one so they could get safely to shore,” Gravelle recalled.

“And when he was down to the last person, she was too scared to jump. It was a standoff. He kept trying to persuade her and they were getting colder and colder. She just wouldn’t go. And finally he said, ‘OK, hug me.’ She hugged him. And he led them both off the raft, hugging, to get out of trouble.”

Mitch Potter

TORONTO STAR

Related Posts You Might Like: