The history of Canada’s ethics commissioner

Pierre Trudeau carries son Justin to an event at Rideau Hall in 1973. The Canadian Press/ Peter Bregg

The origins of Canada’s federal office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner can be traced back to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

In the summer of 1973, the elder Trudeau explained why he was introducing new conflict of interest guidelines for federal cabinet ministers.

“The government believes that no higher standards should be demanded of anyone than of ministers themselves,” Trudeau said in a speech to Parliament. The rules included barring ministers from using insider information for public gain. “Our policy leaves each minister with a heavy onus to conduct his personal affairs in a manner which must not conflict or appear to conflict with his public duties and responsibilities.”

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Nearly a decade before that, in 1964, the House of Commons was rocked with a corruption and bribery scandal involving Lucien Rivard, who while in a Canadian jail facing extradition to the U.S. on heroin charges, had contacted Liberal government officials to secure his bail.

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The Rivard Affair, as it came to be known, prompted then Liberal prime minister Lester Pearson to send a letter to his ministers, laying out a code of morality and ethics. It specifically forbade conflicts of interest and bribery.

Pierre Trudeau, in his 1973 speech, said cabinet ministers required something more than the customs and laws on the books, such as those in the Criminal Code.

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“Because of their unique duties and responsibilities, ministers should, however, be required to conform to a series of guidelines which impose added restraints, particularly in relation to pecuniary interests,” Trudeau continued. “It is important that a minister not be called upon to take decisions in a private capacity which would place him in a situation of appearing to use inside information to the advance either of himself or of any associates in corporate or other business activities.”

Trudeau’s words and guidelines preceded the Federal Accountability Act that would be be proposed decades later in 2006. The omnibus legislation, brought in by the Conservatives under former prime minister Stephen Harper, amended dozens of statutes and set up the Office of the Conflict of interest and Ethics Commissioner, as it’s known today. The conflict of interest and ethics legislation imposed new measures that aimed to toughen ethical standards and to ensure the commissioner was someone with a judicial background.

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John Baird, then Treasury Board president, described the Federal Accountability Act as the “toughest anti-corruption law ever passed in Canada,” a characterization that has been disputed.

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Trudeau’s words from 1973 were quoted last November by Mario Dion, the current Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, in a lecture he gave at York University in Toronto on the history of “the federal approach to ethics.”

“An effective ethics regime, in my view, must be supported by effective instruments, institutions, processes and structures if is to enhance the public’s confidence in those who hold public office,” said Dion, who was appointed under the current Liberal government, and was then just a few months into his seven-year term as ethics commissioner, taking over for his predecessor Mary Dawson.

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Dion’s speech was three months before The Globe and Mail first published its report that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office tried to pressure former attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to urge prosecutors to give SNC-Lavalin a deal to avoid a criminal trial over fraud and corruption charges from its dealings in Libya. Dion launched his own investigation into the allegations a week later.

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Dion was not initially embraced by the opposition when he first was appointed to his role. In 2017, his appointment was slammed by opposition MPs as a secretive and unethical process.

NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen called the process “just ragingly incompetent and frustrating and cynical,” and questioned whether Dion, a retired lawyer from Montreal and long-time bureaucrat, was suitable to take on the job.

“Are you tough, are you fair, are you a dog with a bone?” Cullen asked Dion during a committee meeting regarding Dion’s appointment.

But this Wednesday, Dion released his findings in a scathing report that concluded that Justin Trudeau violated Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act. Specifically, Dion found that Trudeau “directly and through his senior officials used various means to exert influence” over former attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.

READ MORE: Ethics commissioner concludes Trudeau broke ethics rules by trying to exert influence in SNC-Lavalin scandal

Dion found there was a specific desire to “improperly further the interests of SNC-Lavalin.”

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He continued: “The evidence showed that SNC-Lavalin had significant financial interests in deferring prosecution. These interests would likely have been furthered had Mr. Trudeau successfully influenced the attorney general to intervene in the director of public prosecutions’ decision.”

There are no penalties associated with Trudeau’s violation of the ethics code. But penalties are something Dion said should be “considered” in an interview with the Globe in early 2018.

Trudeau told reporters that while he accepts Dion’s report in full, and takes “full responsibility” for how the matter was handled, he will not apologize for it.

“I’m not going to apologize for standing up for Canadians jobs. That’s my job,” Trudeau said.

Conservative and NDP MPs have called for an emergency meeting of the House of Commons Ethics Committee to take place next week where a motion to compel Dion to appear will be introduced. Dion has so far declined to speak publicly about his report, saying it speaks for itself.

Back in November at his lecture, Dion said that Canada’s current ethics framework is effective.

“Canada is looked to as an international leader in the field of conflict of interest,” he said. “Public officials and ethics commissioners are not adversaries. They must work together to uphold the highest standards of integrity in support of the effective functioning of democracy in Canada.”

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— with files from the Canadian Press

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