06/16/2013 11:25 EDT | Updated 08/16/2013 05:12 EDT

Justin Trudeau Speaking Fees: Liberal Leader To Compensate Charities


OTTAWA - Justin Trudeau is promising to compensate all groups that paid him hefty speaking fees since he became an MP.

The Liberal leader said Sunday he'll either give back the fees or find some other way to "make it right."

He could, for instance, give charitable groups donations equivalent to the fees charged or agree to appear at future fundraisers for them — for free this time.

"I'm willing to pay all of the money back, if that's what it comes to," Trudeau told CTV's Question Period. "But I am going to fix this."

Trudeau has been under fire since Friday, when it emerged that he'd refused to reimburse the Grace Foundation, a New Brunswick charity that lost money after paying him $20,000 to speak at a fundraising event last year.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall piled on, demanding that Trudeau repay the $20,000 fee he charged for speaking at a Saskatoon literacy conference last year.

But the issue has been haunting Trudeau more generally since he voluntarily disclosed all his sources of income — including a $1.2 million inheritance from his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau — during the Liberal leadership race.

He revealed that he'd earned more than $1.3 million on the public speaking circuit, including $277,000 in the four years after winning election as an MP in 2008. He said he stopped accepting speaking fees once he began seriously contemplating a leadership bid in the spring of 2012.

Some of the groups from which he accepted speaking fees were charitable or non-profit organizations, including universities, school boards, hospital and health care organizations.

Conservatives and New Democrats have been highly critical of Trudeau for accepting public speaking fees. Had he not offered to reimburse the money, the issue doubtless would have dogged him throughout the next election campaign.

Trudeau stressed Sunday that all his speaking engagements were cleared by the federal ethics commissioner, that he never used any parliamentary resources to get to the events and that none of the money he earned went to finance his leadership bid, as Wall initially questioned.

"I'm doing this not because I'm worried that I did something wrong, because I didn't. Everything was done exactly according to the rules."

Still, he acknowledged there's been a public backlash to the voluntary disclosure of his personal finances, which he argued "raised the bar" for transparency and openness "way beyond" what's required even for cabinet ministers.

"For me, transparency isn't a slogan or a tactic; it's a way of doing business. I trust Canadians. I value their opinions. And now that I've heard them, I'm going to act," he said in a written statement.

Trudeau said he'll talk to each of the groups from which he accepted a fee since becoming an MP and find a way to "fix this and make it right."

Wall commended Trudeau for his decision.

"As I stated on Friday, elected officials are already paid to speak on important public matters by the taxpayers," Wall said in a written statement.

"I commend Mr. Trudeau for his reflection on this matter and for doing the right thing."

But Trudeau's federal political adversaries weren't so willing to let the matter go.

A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper questioned why Trudeau ever thought it appropriate for a sitting MP to charge fees for speaking to non-profit groups.

"Most parliamentarians raise money for charity, not from charities," said Julie Vaux.

New Brunswick Conservative MP Rob Moore noted that Trudeau ignored the Grace Foundation's plea for reimbursement for four months "and only when embarrassed in the media has he now claimed he will 'make it right.'"

"Justin Trudeau's willingness to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from charity demonstrates that Justin Trudeau's favourite cause is ... Justin Trudeau," Moore said in a statement.

Nor was NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus satisfied.

"I think the problem here is this seems to be about political management, of getting this off the table so it's not going to be used (by political rivals) further down the road," Angus said in an interview.

"But he needs to answer the question of the political maturity and judgment."

Regardless of whether it was technically within the rules, Angus said Trudeau should have considered public speaking part of his job as an elected official, not a way to supplement his $160,000 MP's salary.

Moreover, Angus argued that Trudeau has one of the worst attendance records of all MPs and appears to have skipped important votes — including one on raising the age of eligibility for old age security to 67 — while off making money as a public speaker.

On CTV, Trudeau noted that Sunday was Father's Day. He appeared to choke up as he said his late father taught him about the value of public service and would want him to "live up to Canadians' expectations."

He also said he's proud of the work he's done as a professional public speaker and bristled at a suggestion he was simply making money off his celebrity name.

"One speaking event you can make off of celebrity. The kinds of requests for me that kept coming in ... the past five years were based on the fact I'm a pretty good speaker. I'm actually a very good speaker."

Not good enough, apparently, to help the Grace Foundation, which hired Trudeau for an event in June 2012 to raise money for furniture for a seniors' home. Foundation board member Susan Buck wrote Trudeau in March to say the event had been "a huge disappointment and financial loss" and to request that he reimburse his fee.

The letter was circulated by the Prime Minister Office on Friday.

No foundation spokesperson could be reached for immediate comment Sunday.

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