New documents on Trudeau’s Bahamas trip raise fresh questions on long-running ethics investigation

Click to play video: 'New questions about Trudeau’s Bahamas trip' New questions about Trudeau’s Bahamas trip
Global News has obtained exclusive new information about how Justin Trudeau's trip to the Aga Kahn's resort was organized. The documents reveal how complex and last-minute the trip was and how that complexity may have contributed to an ethics investigation that is now nearly seven-months old – Jul 19, 2017

Government officials at the Privy Council Office struggled with the complexity of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Christmas vacation to the Bahamas, according to newly released documents.

That complexity may have added to the costs of the trip and may be contributing to what has become a lengthy investigation into the trip by the House of Commons ethics commissioner.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau’s trip to Aga Khan’s island cost taxpayers over $125K

A significant part of that complexity was the result of the fact that Canada did not have a single full-time diplomat in the Bahamas who could help co-ordinate what the documents show was a mad, last-minute scramble to provide Trudeau with the security, communications, and other support the prime minister must have at all times.

The new documents obtained by Global News show that officials in the Privy Council Office (PCO) first began planning for the trip on Dec. 15, less than two weeks ahead of his departure.

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Diplomatic, logistical, communications and security arrangements had to be made and were complex enough that the co-ordinator of the prime minister’s travel eventually thanked the two dozen PCO and Global Affairs diplomats who worked on the file for arranging “this challenging trip.”

The documents also show that Trudeau’s “entourage” travelled to the Bahamas with an official diplomatic note.

Diplomatic notes are routine formal written communications between governments and can be for mundane matters, such as requesting a meeting between government officials, or for more sensitive matters, such as requesting help with security. They are frequently used by Trudeau’s staff, as they were for former prime minister Stephen Harper’s staff, to help facilitate prime ministerial travel.

The documents do not spell out who was in that “entourage” covered by the diplomatic note.

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Liberal Party President Anna Gainey and her spouse, as well as Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan and his spouse, joined Trudeau at the Aga Khan’s island. None of them had their entry into the Bahamas eased by a diplomatic note, Trudeau spokesman Cameron Ahmad said Wednesday.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau recuses himself from choice of ethics watchdog in wake of Aga Khan trip

Global News obtained 88-pages of heavily censored documents from the PCO, the department that supports the work of the prime minister, under a federal Access to Information Act request. The request, filed January 5, asked each of the PCO, the RCMP and DND to provide information about resources that were used by each department to support the visit by Trudeau, his family, and their guests to Bell Island, an island owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire philanthropist and spiritual leader who has been a friend of the Trudeau family since the prime minister was a young boy.

WATCH: Tom Mulcair calls Trudeau’s Bahamas trip an ‘illegal vacation’

Click to play video: 'Mulcair calls Trudeau’s Bahamas trip an ‘illegal vacation’' Mulcair calls Trudeau’s Bahamas trip an ‘illegal vacation’
Mulcair calls Trudeau’s Bahamas trip an ‘illegal vacation’ – Apr 4, 2017

The RCMP and DND have yet to respond to access-to-information requests filed more than seven months ago.

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As for Trudeau, for months, he has resisted providing any details about the trip or about the investigation by House of Commons Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, Mary Dawson, when asked by reporters or parliamentarians.

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

The ongoing investigation

Trudeau has been under investigation by Dawson after she acknowledged that two separate complaints filed by Conservative MPs in January warranted an investigation by her office.

The first complaint, from Conservative Party leader Andrew Scheer, alleges that Trudeau’s acceptance of lodging and transportation assistance from his host, the Aga Khan, represents a conflict of interest given that the Aga Khan Foundation has been the recipient of tens of millions of dollars in grants from the Canadian government over the last decade to help with its foreign aid work. The Aga Khan is a board member of the foundation that bears his name.

Another complaint, from Conservative MP Blaine Calkins, alleges Trudeau violated a rule in the federal Conflict of Interest Act that prohibits prime ministers from travelling on private aircraft. While Trudeau travelled from Ottawa to Nassau on an RCAF jet, he made the 150-km trip from Nassau to the Aga Khan’s private island on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter.

Under the Conflict of Interest Act, the only exceptions for any cabinet minister to accept transportation on a private or commercial aircraft is prior permission from the ethics commissioner or emergency circumstances connected to the minister’s official duties.

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Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson prepares to appear at a Commons committee, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday June 10, 2014. Dawson has been investigating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Bahamas vacation since January.
Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson prepares to appear at a Commons committee, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Tuesday June 10, 2014. Dawson has been investigating Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Bahamas vacation since January. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Trudeau has never said if he sought and received prior permission from the ethics commissioner. Moreover, he has invariably described the trip as “a private visit” not related to his official duties.

Trudeau is in jeopardy of becoming the first sitting prime minister to have been found in violation of a federal statute while in office.

“The prime minister’s in a lot of hot water on this,” Calkins said Tuesday in an interview in Edmonton.

Calkins said he has received no communication from Dawson or her investigators since filing the complaint.

In the meantime, Trudeau extended Dawson’s appointment as ethics commissioner but has recused himself from the selection of her successor, passing that job to a cabinet minister who, nonetheless, holds her job at the pleasure of the prime minister.

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“The whole thing seems to be a bit odd — and taxpayers need to be worried about this,” Calkins said.

A private trip or an Official Visit?

The bureaucrats in the PCO appeared to have understood Trudeau’s Bahamas travel to be a private visit as well. An extensive e-mail exchange involving PCO employees as well as Global Affairs Canada diplomats has a subject line which includes “Nassau BAHAMAS – Private Visit of the Prime Minister.”

And yet, when Catherine Mathieu, the PCO manager of the prime minister’s tour, made an official request to the department of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship for a diplomatic note that would ease entry into the Bahamas for a PCO technician, Mathieu did not characterize the trip as “a private visit.” Instead, she explained the diplomatic note was required for an employee “travelling to the Bahamas from December 23, 2016 until January 5, 2017 for the Prime Minister’s official visit.

PCO request for a Diplomatic Note for PM’s “Official Visit” by David Akin on Scribd

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In any event, as part of a discussion between Mathieu and a government official whose name has been blacked out by a government censor, that unnamed official notes that “teams” from both DND and the RCMP had arranged for diplomatic notes to ease their entry into the country.

On Dec. 15, Jean-Philippe Lafond, the manager of official travel at Passport Canada in Gatineau, Que., advised  Mathieu that Bahamian authorities “received a Dip Note for the entourage of the PM.” That entourage appears to be a reference to Canadian government officials, including the RCMP and DND.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau isn’t the first politician to ride in the Aga Khan’s helicopter

While officials with Canada’s foreign service in Ottawa played a key role in organizing transportation of diplomatic “red bags” to the Bahamas, it was foreign service officers in Kingston, Jamaica who played the key role on the ground in the Bahamas.

“We do not have [government of Canada] employees based in Bahamas.We only have a Consulate led by an Honorary Consul who’s [sic] appointment has yet to be approved by PCO,” wrote Damin Kotzev, the second secretary at the Jamaica High Commission. “We have therefore nobody with diplomatic accreditation to Bahamas based on the Island.”
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The lack of a diplomatic presence in the Bahamas made it difficult, for example, to find a large enough vehicle to transport officials and their diplomatic bags travelling through Nassau.

The last-minute nature of the planning may also have led to higher costs.

The documents show there were attempts to co-ordinate travel and logistics between PCO and the RCMP, for example, but it is not clear if those attempts were successful.

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