OTTAWA – If only Justin Trudeau had bumped into Earl Deveaux at the airport in the Bahamas — he might have been able to save himself a chopper-load of political grief.
After all, Deveaux — formerly the island nation’s environment minister — has himself been a passenger on board the Aga Khan’s private helicopter, just like Trudeau, and was made to suffer the professional consequences.
It was September 2010 when someone snapped a photo of Deveaux walking away from the helicopter in question during a stopover on his way to the Aga Khan’s private island — the same island Trudeau and his family visited during a New Years getaway.
For Deveaux, the political perils were decidedly more glaring.
The Aga Khan was seeking permission to dredge offshore from his island, inside an established marine reserve, in order to make room for his massive luxury yacht, among other vessels. Locals feared irrevocable environmental harm.
The area, known as the Exumas, had become popular with celebrities and super-wealthy people keen on owning their own island. Indeed, the Hollywood Reporter calls the Bahamas the “epicentre of the private-island world.”
Owners include actor Johnny Depp, singers Faith Hill and Tim McGraw and former investment banker Steve Harrington.
And, of course, the Aga Khan — the wealthy philanthropist and hereditary spiritual leader to the world’s approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims who also happens to be a close family friend of Canada’s prime minister.
Trudeau has been facing heat over the flight ever since the National Post reported on his family holiday at the Aga Khan’s island, which also included Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan and Liberal party president Anna Gainey.
The federal Conflict of Interest Act and Trudeau’s own ethics guidelines for his cabinet ministers bar the use of sponsored travel in private aircraft, allowing it only for exceptional circumstances and only with the commissioner’s prior approval.
The act also prohibits a minister or any member of their family from accepting gifts or “advantages” that could reasonably be seen as influencing government decisions. The only exception is if the person providing the gift is a friend.
The federal ethics commissioner is looking into the holiday and the chopper flight. Trudeau has repeatedly called the Aga Khan a longtime family friend who served as a pallbearer at his father’s funeral.
Back in 2010, there were immediate calls for Deveaux’s resignation. The Bahamian newspaper the Tribune quoted him as saying he couldn’t be bought with a single flight.
Then-prime minister Hubert Ingraham stood by his minister, admitting that he, too, had hopped a ride in the very same helicopter to meet with the Aga Khan and foreign dignitaries.
At the time, a frequent political argument — similar to that of Trudeau — was that there was no other means of accessing the 140-hectare Bell Island, which the Aga Khan reportedly purchased in 2009 for $100 million US.
Another: In the island archipelago of the Bahamas, local politicians ride regularly in private helicopters owned by developers.
Such practices were also once commonplace in Canadian politics, but are now expressly forbidden under federal ethics rules, which is why the flight has fostered such controversy.
Deveaux left Bahamian politics in 2012, after the dredging work on Bell Island had been approved.
Year ago, the Tribune described the helicopter as an AB-139, built by AgustaWestland, the same company that built the Cormorant helicopters the Canadian military uses for search and rescue missions. It seats 13 people and costs upwards of $10 million.
It’s not clear if Trudeau rode the same model helicopter.
O’Regan told the National Post earlier this month that he wanted to repay the Aga Khan for the cost of the private flight. His office did not respond to questions this week about whether that had happened, and if so, how much he’d paid.
To be sure, operating an AB-139 is likely no bargain, considering the cost of fuel, maintenance, capital depreciation or lease payments, salaries for pilots and mechanics, hanger space, tools and support contracts.
Privately chartering an AB-139 to travel the 115 kilometres between Nassau and Bell Island could cost between $5,300 and $8,000 per hour, based on estimates provided by private charter services contacted by The Canadian Press.