When photos of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau wearing Blackface were revealed many were shocked. Not only because of Trudeau’s progressive image but also because when people think of blackface, Canada doesn’t come to mind. But in fact, blackface is more prevalent in Canadian history than some would think.
During the 1800’s, blackface was a common form of entertainment, from circus shows to plays. On a popular radio show in the 1930s, two white actors played African-American characters called Amos and Andy, a blockbuster movie called, The Birth of a Nation portrayed African Americans as rapists with no morals, and racial caricatures were common in children’s cartoons and as costumes in public events and parties. The tone of all of this was aimed at mimicking and mocking African Americans by portraying them as lesser than white Americans, as a way of asserting dominance and power. This was known as blackface minstrelsy which originated from the theatres of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia but eventually became popular in Canada. One of the earlier influencers of blackface and what partially started these minstrel acts was the character Jim Crow, as portrayed by the white minstrel actor Thomas Rice during the 1830’s. The character was so well-known that segregation laws in the United States from 1876-1965 were named Jim Crow laws. There were many of these famous blackface actors back in the 1800’s and early 1900’s.
Minstrel shows could be found throughout Canada in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. As shown in information compiled by the McGill University, there were many such shows across Canada, from the west coast to the maritimes. Performances like this went on for quite some time until changing attitudes led them to decline around the 1950’s.
Toronto’s Royal Lyceum theatre hosted many minstrel performances, and after the Royal Lyceum burnt down, they were held in the Grand Opera House. In Montreal, a group of people in the Jewish community known as the Young Men’s Hebrew Association would also hold minstrel performances. One famous Canadian, Calixa Lavallee, the Composer of “O Canada” spent much of his early career performing in blackface in the US. The Mechanics Institute and Academy of Music in Saint Johns was known for hosting Minstrel shows as well as advertising blackface. In Alberta there were lots of blackface shows, many instances include the Rotary Club Gathering, Calgary Rotary Minstrels, Rotary end men and Rotary Minstrel show. As for British Columbia, there were pictures and minstrel shows at the Garrison Theater as well as Oak Grove. Victoria had blackface instances at the Victoria Theater.
When the current prime minister of Canada has photos and video footage released of him wearing blackface, Canadians may debate whether he is actually racist if he simply, as he prefers to put it, likes to dress up.
But what is certain is that the idea that blackface is somehow “just an American thing” is naive.
Cover Image: Wellington County Museum and Archives, 1996