January 13, 2017 3:16 pm
Updated: January 13, 2017 3:49 pm

Why Justin Trudeau’s trip to the Aga Khan’s island matters

WATCH: Justin Trudeau has started a cross-country tour under a cloud of controversy

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Justin Trudeau and his family, along with another MP, the president of the Liberal party, and a couple others vacationed on an island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan over the Christmas break.

Why should that matter to you? And why have two (Conservative) MPs asked the ethics commissioner to investigate?

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The basis of the complaints against Trudeau and the vacation is simple: is it ethical to accept a gift from a friend who has business dealings with the government?

The ethics commissioner, Mary Dawson, has received two separate letters asking for an investigation. The first, from Conservative MP and leadership hopeful Andrew Scheer, raises a concern over the use of the private island.

The second, from Alberta MP and Conservative ethics critic Blaine Calkins, details the use of the Aga Khan’s private helicopter as an ethics concern.

Trudeau has said he doesn’t believe there are any ethical dilemmas and is happy to answer any questions ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has.

WATCH: Do Canadians care about Trudeau’s private trip?

What are the rules on vacations?

Section 11 of the Conflict of Interest Act says MPs or other public office holders or their families cannot accept gifts “that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the public office holder in the exercise of an official power, duty or function.”

The Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner defines a gift (or other advantage) as money, service, property or use of property “that is provided without charge or at less than its commercial value.”

There are exceptions to these rules, and the  exception Trudeau is suggesting is applicable in this case is that gifts from personal friends are allowed.

“This was a personal family vacation where we visited someone I have known pretty much all my life,” Trudeau said at one of his 2017 cross-country tour stops on Thursday.

WATCH: Justin Trudeau addresses vacation on Aga Khan’s private island

But Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher says that rule should exclude friends who have business with the Canadian government.

“So even though it says gifts from friends are allowed, it has to be [given as] a friend,” Conacher explained. “And if the friend is involved with lobbying the government, then they’re not giving the gift only as a friend. [Dawson should] assume they’re giving it as a lobbyist and therefore they can’t accept it.”

What are the rules on private helicopters?

The second complaint, about the use of a private helicopter, is addressed in section 12 of the Conflict of Interest Act.

It says that no public office holder “shall accept travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft” but also lists exceptions to this rule if there are exceptional circumstances.

Trudeau admitted on Thursday that he took the Aga Khan’s personal helicopter to the island, and has claimed that exceptional circumstances are that the only way to get to the island is by private helicopter, but Conacher disagrees.

“Yes you get to the island by helicopter, but you don’t have to take the Aga Khan’s helicopter,” he said.

He said that Trudeau could have chartered his own private helicopter for the trip. He also could have paid back the Aga Khan so that the use of his helicopter wouldn’t be seen as a gift.

Aga Khan Foundation and parliament

The Aga Khan, the hereditary spiritual leader of the world’s approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims and a renowned philanthropist, is a board member of the Aga Khan Foundation.

While the Aga Khan himself is not a registered lobbyist, the foundation is registered to lobby the House of Commons, and — according to records — received more than $47 million from the federal government in 2016.

It has also received funds from Global Affairs Canada for various humanitarian projects in the developing world, according to Charity Intelligence Canada.

The same site notes the foundation will be receiving $55 million from 2016 to 2020 for Global Affairs’ Health Action Plan for Afghanistan project.

No business discussed on the island

MP Seamus O’Reagan, who joined Trudeau for the vacation, told the National Post no government business was discussed on the island, but does that matter?

“The standard is you can’t accept a gift that might reasonably be seen that it could influence you – that’s a high standard: just the appearance of influence,” Conacher explained.

Greater scheme of things

The scandal of the vacation comes after a troubled year for the Liberals. Their approval rating has fallen with accusations of cash-for-access fundraising that started in 2016. A December poll found that the number of Canadians who say approve of him dropped 10 points in three months. 

READ MORE: Unpacking the politics: The ‘cash-for-access’ affair

While Trudeau insists the vacation hasn’t affected public opinion, Conacher disagrees.

“There’s a wide gap between the Trudeau Liberals’ ethics talk and their actions, and they are going to lose voter support because of how big that gap is.”

WATCH: Trudeau assured private trip hasn’t rocked public’s confidence 

 

— With files from Amy Minsky

 

 

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