On Wednesday, federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson released the conclusion to her investigation into a private vacation taken by the Trudeau family last year. She found that the Prime Minister violated conflict of interest laws when he vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private island last Christmas and on two other previously undisclosed trips (one in 2014 and one that was just “members of his family” in 2016).
According to The Conflict of Interest Act (2006), ministers and members of their families are prohibited from accepting gifts or “other advantages” that could be interpreted as influencing government decisions. The Aga Khan — a spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims — and his foundation were registered at the time of the December trip to lobby the PM’s office. The report concludes that the vacation “could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau in his capacity as Prime Minister.” Trudeau is the first PM to have been found in violation of the law.
The exception to the conflict of interest rule is if the gift is from a relative or “friend.” But that friendship needs to be provable (yeah, sure, we would call any stranger who gave us a vacation to a private island a “friend”). Trudeau claimed that this was the case — the Aga Khan has had a relationship with the Trudeau family since the 1960s when Pierre Trudeau wore the PM hat — but Dawson disputed that in her report. She found that between 1983 and 2013, the only interaction between the two besties was at Pierre Trudeau’s funeral and they did not rekindle this current iteration of their friendship until Justin was elected Liberal leader.
Trudeau was also found to have violated a section of the Act that prohibits ministers and their families from “accepting travel on non-commercial chartered or private aircraft for any purpose unless required in their capacity as public office holders” when he and his family traveled on the Aga Khan’s private helicopter in March 2016. He also failed to recuse himself from discussions that “provided an opportunity to further private interests associated with institutions of the Aga Khan” but the PM did not contribute to the decisions made as a result of those meetings. Dawson concluded that other sections pertaining to influence and preferential treatment were not violated by the PM. Essentially, these trips look really bad (and violated laws), but there doesn’t seem to be favoritism going on here or shady dealings.
In the House of Commons foyer Wednesday afternoon, Trudeau addressed the report, apologizing but reiterating that the reason he did not clear the December 2016 trip with the ethics commissioner was that he felt their relationship constituted a friendship under the stipulations of the Act.
“Obviously, I take full responsibility for this,” Trudeau told reporters, “This was a family vacation that I am responsible for and I take responsibility.” He also added that in the future, he will check with the ethics commissioner’s office before accepting gifts or trips from people he considers friends by his own definition.
“This is an important issue. We have a system in place to protect the integrity of the [prime minister’s] office,” he said, “It is important that as we move forward, we learn from this mistake. I take full responsibility for it.”
Opposition leaders Andrew Scheer (who requested the investigation) and Jagmeet Singh responded to the report by saying that they expected more from the PM. Scheer accepted Trudeau’s public apology (and profuse “responsibility” taking), but said that the PM needs to go above and beyond the law.
“Justin Trudeau needs to recognize that when he occupies the prime minister’s seat,” Scheer said, “It is not enough to simply comply with the law – something that Justin Trudeau didn’t even do in this case, but to be better… to answer questions fully, and to tell the truth.” Singh pointed out that like his finance minister, Bill Morneau, Trudeau appears to be “out of touch” with the middle class Canadians he claims to champion and represent.
“These are all signs of a government and a prime minister that are just out of touch, and don’t get the realities that Canadians have to deal with,” the NDP leader said.