When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau launched his Canadian tour last week, it was under the dark cloud of his controversial – and potentially illegal – vacation to a private island during which he travelled aboard a private helicopter.
The story snowballed throughout the past couple of weeks, from open questions about whether Canadians even need to know where the prime minister is vacationing (the Prime Minister’s Office at first wouldn’t say), to pointed questions about the ethics and legality of his trip.
Veteran journalists Robert Fife, Ottawa Bureau Chief of The Globe and Mail, and Joanna Smith of The Canadian Press joined Vassy Kapelos on The West Block to unpack the politics of it all.
Trudeau and his family spent their New Year vacation on the private Bahamian island belonging to the Aga Khan – the hereditary spiritual leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims and a long-time Trudeau family friend.
WATCH: Trudeau says he’s in process of discussing recent vacation to ethics commissioner
The potential conflict comes from the fact the Aga Khan’s foundations receive tens of millions in funding from Ottawa.
“It’s astounding to me [the PMO] didn’t take a second look at this and go, ‘let’s make sure this is all OK,’” said Smith. “I think they should have … been more sensitive to the optics of it, to any potential rules [being broken].”
Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan and his husband, as well as Liberal Party president Anna Gainey and her husband, who is president of the Liberal-linked think-tank Canada 2020 were also on the trip. MPs, however, are not bound to the exact same rules as prime ministers, ministers or parliamentary secretaries and their families.
One section of the Conflict of Interest Act forbids public office holders and their families from accepting “directly or indirectly any gift or other benefit, except compensation authorized by law, that might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence the member” in their work.
Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson received a request to investigate whether vacationing on the private island constitutes a gift and, if so, whether it was appropriate for the Trudeaus to accept a gift from an individual whose foundation receives federal funding.
WATCH: Trudeau addresses vacation on Aga Khan’s private island
Dawson’s office said the commissioner has launched a preliminary investigation into this matter.
Another relevant section of the law states public office holders, their family, advisers and staff cannot accept trips on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft. But there are exceptions.
They can board private planes if doing so is required in the capacity of their job or “in exceptional circumstances or with the prior approval of the commissioner.”
Trudeau has said he didn’t speak with the commissioner prior to his trip, but will be happy to answer any questions she has. While taking questions from reporters on Thursday, Trudeau said there is no way to get to the private island, save for private aircraft.
“You know, he’s a rich guy. And the guys who were going with him … they’re not poor people,” Fife said. “They could have thrown in $500 each and got a helicopter to fly them there.”