Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke multiple federal ethics rules when he accepted a ride on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter and stayed on his private island over the holidays in 2016, the ethics commissioner has ruled.
In a ruling posted on the website of the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Wednesday at noon, Mary Dawson said that her investigation into two complaints about the trip found that Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act when he and his family accepted the trip. But she also dismissed several of the specific violations brought within those complaints.
Essentially, the ruling boils down to two core issues: whether Trudeau’s acceptance of the trip put him in a conflict of interest because the Aga Khan has ongoing business ties with the government, and also whether he broke the rules around when cabinet officials and members of the House of Commons can accept rides on private transportation.
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On the first matter, which stemmed from a complaint brought in January 2017 by Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, Dawson ruled that Trudeau did not violate Section 14 of the Conflict of Interest Act because he did not discuss official government business with the Aga Khan on the trip. She also ruled that he violated Section 11 because the trip could be reasonably inferred as having given influence towards the Aga Khan’s interests.
“Because there was ongoing official business between the Government of Canada and the Aga Khan at the time each invitation was accepted, Mr. Trudeau, as Prime Minister, was in a position to be able to advance some of the matters of interest to the Aga Khan,” Dawson noted.
“As well, the Foundation was registered to lobby the Office of the Prime Minister at that time. For these reasons, I determined that the vacations accepted by Mr. Trudeau or his family might reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau.”
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The only cases where that is allowed is if the individual travelling has either secured permission in advance from the ethics commissioner to use the private transportation or if there are emergency circumstances related to their official duties.
Dawson also ruled that Trudeau failed to recuse himself on two occasions in May 2016 when there were official discussions of a $15-million endowment by the Canadian government to be made to the Global Centre for Pluralism, an institution directly related to the Aga Khan and his foundation. She found that Trudeau did not arrange his private affairs in a way that avoided a conflict of interest.
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Despite the use of the private island and helicopter, that trip cost taxpayers roughly $200,000.
Trudeau apologized in a press conference shortly after the report’s release and said he should have cleared the vacation with Dawson in advance and that he takes “full responsibility” for the issue.
“I’m sorry I didn’t and in future, I will be clearing all my family vacations,” Trudeau said, repeating past assertions that he considers the Aga Khan a “close family friend” and a “friend of Canada.”
When pressed on how he did not see the vacation as a potential conflict of interest, Trudeau said he made a mistake.
“On this issue of a family vacation with a personal friend, it wasn’t considered that there would be an issue there,” he said. “Obviously there was a mistake.”
Trudeau stressed he plans to be “proactive” in the future and said he understands that the office of the prime minister needs to be beyond reproach.
Scheer also weighed in, accusing Trudeau of acting as if the rules are beneath him.
Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau initiated trips to private island
The Aga Khan, who is a family friend of the Trudeaus, has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants from the Canadian government to support its foreign aid work over the years.
As Dawson notes in her report, the Canadian government has contributed nearly $330 million to projects run by the Aga Khan Foundation in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tanzania and Bangladesh since 1981.
“The Government of Canada also regularly consults representatives of the Foundation on current and emerging development trends and priorities, such as conflicts in the Middle East,” she wrote.
In addition, Dawson revealed that the December 2016 trip was not the first time Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau had visited the island that year.
“In February 2016, Ms. Grégoire Trudeau reached out to the Aga Khan’s daughter and discussed the possibility of Ms. Grégoire Trudeau vacationing on the island during the month of March. On March 11, 2016, Ms. Grégoire Trudeau, a friend of hers, and their children, arrived on the island for a week-long trip,” wrote Dawson.
“Mr. Trudeau did not take part in that trip.”
Gregoire-Trudeau then contacted the Aga Khan’s daughter again in July 2016 to ask whether the whole family could come down to spend Christmas on the private island and that during their trip from Dec. 26, 2016, to Jan. 4, 2017, the family exchanged holiday gifts with the Aga Khan and his family.
“By deciding that he or his family should vacation on the Aga Khan’s private island in March 2016 and December 2016, when it was foreseeable prior to both vacations that he and the Aga Khan would continue to have official dealings, Mr. Trudeau failed to arrange his private affairs in a manner that would prevent him from being placed in a conflict of interest,” Dawson wrote in summary of her findings.
While a finding of violating the ethics rules does not carry any substantial penalty – the maximum fine is just $500 – it could carry heavy reputational baggage for the government as it tries to shake off the criticisms of arrogance and unethical behaviour that Conservatives have been aiming at them for the last several months over the investigation.
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Dawson has also launched a preliminary inquiry into Kent Hehr, the Minister of Sport and Persons with Disabilities, over allegations he used parliamentary resources to bolster the campaign his father was running for a seat on the Calgary Board of Education.
In addition, Dawson hit Finance Minister Bill Morneau will a $200 fine last month for failing to disclose a French corporation that holds his private villa there.
The Conservatives drilled in on that finding and also broader allegations of ethical impropriety over concerns that C-24, the pensions bill he tabled, could benefit his family firm, Morneau Shepell.
The ethics issue dominated two gruelling four-week stretches of parliamentary brouhaha that ended when the House of Commons rose last week, but the government now seems set to face the new year the same way they wrapped up the last: dusting off allegations of unethical behaviour.
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