Ethics czar investigating Justin Trudeau for his vacation to Aga Khan’s island

The Federal Ethics Commission has launched an investigation into Justin Trudeau's Christmas vacation to the Bahamas. Trudeau accepted an invitation from the Aga Khan, a longtime family friend who's foundation gets millions in funding from the federal government. Shirlee Engel explains the potential costs of the investigation.

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect that this is not the first time the ethics commissioner has investigated the actions of a prime minister. 

Canada’s ethics watchdog has launched an investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent vacation to the private island of a multimillionaire philanthropist whose foundation receives tens of millions of dollars in federal funding.

“I have … commenced an examination … of the [Conflict of Interest] Act to determine whether Mr. Trudeau has contravened … the Act in connection with his recent stay at and travel to the Aga Khan’s privately owned island,” Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson wrote in response to a Conservative MP’s request for an investigation.

The prime minister and his family, along with a fellow Liberal MP, the party president and their spouses travelled over New Years to the Bahamian island belonging to the Aga Khan, who’s been a friend of Trudeau’s family since the prime minister was a young boy.

WATCH: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s vacation getaway with the Aga Khan continues to raise questions and eyebrows. AM640 Toronto talk host Tasha Kheiriddin weighs in.
Trudeau starts a cross-country tour under a cloud of controversy
Trudeau starts a cross-country tour under a cloud of controversy

READ MORE: Ethics watchdog receives 2nd request for investigation into Justin Trudeau’s vacation

Details about the trip came out in dribs and drabs. The Prime Minister’s Office was at first hesitant to release any information about the trip, refusing to divulge even general information.

Story continues below advertisement

Eventually a spokesperson said the family had flown aboard the government’s Challenger jet to Nassau.

Over the course of days, more details started coming out, including the fact Trudeau, his family and guests had accepted a free vacation from the Aga Khan and flown aboard a private helicopter to get from Nassau to the private island.

It’s those last two points that mark potential breaches of federal conflict of interest laws.

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

Justin Trudeau addresses vacation on Aga Khan’s private island
Justin Trudeau addresses vacation on Aga Khan’s private island
One section of the Conflict of Interest Act, which guides public office holders, states “neither a member [of Parliament] nor a member’s family shall accept, 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 the exercise of a duty or function of his or her office.”

The second relevant section states the prime minister (as well as ministers, ministers of state and parliamentary secretaries), his family, advisers or staff cannot accept trips on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft: but there are exceptions.

WATCH: PM Trudeau says he’s discussing recent vacation with ethics commissioner

PM Trudeau says he’s in process of discussing recent vacation to ethics commission
PM Trudeau says he’s in process of discussing recent vacation to ethics commission

Public office holders 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.”

What is the watchdog investigating?

Two Conservative MPs, Andrew Scheer and Blaine Calkins, wrote to the ethics commissioner requesting she investigate the potential breaches.

Story continues below advertisement

Trudeau last week said private aircraft is the only means to travel to the Aga Khan’s island, but critics have suggested he could have either hired his own helicopter or paid for use of the Aga Khan’s.

The prime minister has also repeated several times that his friendship with the Aga Khan is one that goes back decades.

This fact could be relevant since the Conflict of Interest Act makes exceptions for dealings with existing friends.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau took an MP, party president to vacation on Aga Khan’s private island

Calkins’ letter asked Dawson to determine whether the “friendship” falls within the definition provided in the law.

“I am of the view that your request satisfies the requirements … of the Act,” Dawson wrote in her Jan. 13 letter to Calkins.

Dawson said she will be investigating Trudeau’s use of the helicopter and whether the Aga Khan can be considered a “friend” in terms of the law.

Scheer, meanwhile, asked the ethics commissioner to investigate whether the invitation to the private island constitutes a gift and if Trudeau, in accepting the offer, violated any provisions in the act. Dawson’s office last week said she had initiated a “preliminary review” in response to that request.

Story continues below advertisement

In yet another letter sent to Dawson, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and the party’s ethics critic, Alexandre Boulerice, asked the commissioner to fast track the portion of the investigation dealing with Trudeau’s flight aboard the Aga Khan’s helicopter.

“We recognize that a full investigation of the inappropriate trip may take some time, but the use of the private aircraft is a clear-cut violation that could be addressed more swiftly,” Mulcair and Boulerice wrote in their Jan. 16 letter. “We are therefore asking that you fast track this piece of your investigation.”

What is the potential conflict?

Last year, the Aga Khan Foundation received more than $47 million from the federal government, according to lobbying records.

Between 2012 and 2017, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada received $75 million from Global Affairs Canada to fund the Partnership for Advancing Human Development in Africa and Asia and $40 million between 2012 and 2015 for improving maternal, newborn and child health in Afghanistan, according to Charity Intelligence Canada.

WATCH: His Highness The Aga Khan receives Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship

His Highness The Aga Khan receives Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship
His Highness The Aga Khan receives Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship

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

The Aga Khan, the hereditary spiritual leader of the world’s approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims and a renowned philanthropist, invited Trudeau, his family and a few friends to Bell Island.

Story continues below advertisement

READ MORE: Trudeau will reimburse government for partial costs of family travel to Caribbean resort

The Aga Khan founded one of the world’s largest development agencies, the Aga Khan Development Network, dedicated to enhancing progress in underdeveloped regions of the world.

In 2009, then-prime minister Stephen Harper bestowed honorary citizenship on the Aga Khan.

For security reasons, prime ministers are obligated to travel using the government’s Challenger jet; Trudeau’s office has said he will, as is customary, refund taxpayers the equivalent of economy air fares to and from Nassau..

No one except the Trudeaus travelled on the Challenger, according to his office.

The potential penalties for breaking the law enacted in the Conflict of Interest Act are minimal. A breach of some sections comes with a penalty of $500, though many have no penalty, financial or otherwise. After concluding an investigation, the commissioner publishes a report either clearing or admonishing the subject.

With a file from The Canadian Press