OTTAWA — The former House of Commons ethics watchdog says that if she knew what she knows now, she probably would have advised Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to skip the now-infamous vacation he took on the Aga Khan’s private island in late 2016.
“I probably would have said no, depending on the amount of information I was given,” said Mary Dawson during testimony on Wednesday before the House of Commons ethics committee.
“If I knew everything I knew (subsequently), that’s the advice I would give.”
Dawson also testified that her recent report on Trudeau’s controversial family vacation is a warning to the prime minister and other politicians that they should exercise caution when they meet people they consider old pals.
Dawson’s decision that Trudeau and the Aga Khan, a wealthy spiritual leader, couldn’t be considered “friends” as defined under the ethics law meant the December 2016 family vacation wasn’t exempt from an ethics review.
Dawson said the exemption around gifts from friends should be removed from the Conflict of Interest Act entirely.
She said doing that, and applying the same stringent rules around accepting gifts to friends and non-friends alike, would remove “a bunch of confusion” for public office holders. She noted that the word “friend” isn’t even clearly defined in the law to begin with.
But regardless of whether the Aga Khan was truly a friend of Trudeau’s, Dawson noted, “one way or another, there was going to be a problem” with the vacation.
Dawson concluded Trudeau violated four provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act when he and members of his family accepted the trip to the Aga Khan’s private island, which Dawson said could be seen as a gift designed to influence the prime minister.
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She also found Trudeau should have recused himself from two meetings focused on a $15-million grant to the endowment fund of the billionaire philanthropist’s Global Centre for Pluralism.
She found no evidence that Trudeau used his position to further the Aga Khan’s private interest.
On Wednesday, Dawson said no political leader should be kept “prisoner” and prevented from vacationing, but that if there is any doubt about the ethical issues surrounding a trip, the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner should be consulted.
She was pressed repeatedly by members of the committee to expand on her findings or offer personal interpretations of the prime minister’s behaviour. Dawson remained cautious in her responses.
Asked by the NDP’s Nathan Cullen if Trudeau’s violations of the act were “a big deal,” she replied simply that “they’re contraventions, yeah.”
Dawson finished her term as ethics commissioner this week, handing the job over to Mario Dion.
-With files from the Canadian Press