04/11/2016 06:51 EDT | Updated 04/11/2016 10:45 EDT

Jody Wilson-Raybould Under Fire From Tories, NDP After Controversial Fundraiser

Wilson-Raybould says the event was cleared by the ethics commissioner.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was pummeled with criticism in the House of Commons Monday and accused of breaking her own government’s ethical rules for attending a $500-a-head Liberal fundraiser at a top Toronto law firm last week.

“After promising to govern differently, the prime minister, we find, has no problem with his minister of justice taking part in a fundraiser for the Liberal Party,” NDP MP Peter Julian said in question period.

Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould speaks during question period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, Monday, April 11, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

Julian referred to Trudeau’s new “open and accountable” government guidelines for ministers which stresses the “critical issue of ethical conduct” and states ministers and parliamentary secretaries “must avoid conflict of interest, the appearance of conflict of interest and situations that have the potential to involve conflicts of interest.”

Wilson-Raybould tried to brush off the criticism. Hands clasped together, she said “fundraising was an activity that every member of this House engages in.” The Liberals, she said, don’t accept donations from unions or corporations – which are illegal under Canada’s election laws.

Wilson-Raybould told the Commons she had pro-actively reached out to the Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to discuss the event. Dawson had said there was no conflict, Wilson-Raybould said.

Government House Leader Dominic LeBlanc went further saying Dawson had “indicated that [the fundraiser] was appropriate.”

Dominic LeBlanc answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons in Ottawa, April 11, 2016. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

But the Ethics Commissioner’s office said it did no such thing.

In an email, Dawson’s office stated that the watchdog said that “based on the information available, there does not appear to have been a contravention of the Conflict of Interest Act.”

The only relevant provision in the Conflict of Interest Act prohibits ministers from personally soliciting funds if it would place them in a conflict of interest. Dawson has urged parliamentarians in the past to change the rules so there is a more “stringent” definition of conflict when it comes to fundraising. But her pleas have fallen on deaf ears.

The new ‘Open and Accountable Government’ document goes much further than the Conflict of Interest Act by stating ministers must not engage in political fundraising activities that affect, or appear to affect, the exercise of their official duties or the access of individuals or organizations to the government.

Ministers and parliamentary secretaries must also ensure that the solicitation of political contribution on their behalf does not target departmental stakeholders or other lobbyists and employees of lobbying firms.

According to a CBC report, a senior partner who attended the justice minister’s fundraiser at prominent Bay Street law firm Tory’s LLP was a registered lobbyist until he deactivated his status on the eve of the controversial event.

The new guidelines, however, are administered by the Privy Council and have no force of law.

Wilson-Raybould's explanation not accepted

Monday, both the NDP and the Conservatives called on the justice minister to give back the money the Toronto fundraiser had raised.

Wilson-Raybould said she took her “ethical responsibilities incredibly seriously” and told the Commons that one of the realities of fundraising was to “broadly engage with the public and have discussions.”

She claimed she attended the fundraiser as a member of Parliament, not a cabinet minister, and that her policy advisor, who attended the event, was there as a volunteer.

Conservative MP Blaine Calkins shook his head in disbelief.

“It’s not a defence at all. Canadians can see right through it.”

— Conservative MP Blaine Calkins

“Does the justice minister really expect Canadians to believe that high-priced Ontario lawyers paid 500 bucks a plate to meet with the member for Vancouver Granville?'' he asked.

Wilson-Raybould suggested there was nothing nefarious about the event and that the "primary discussion" at the fundraiser was about "Canada."

"It was about how far we've come as a country wherein we embrace diversity, ensure that all voices are heard, and recognize that in a country such as Canada, the justice minister can be an aboriginal person and also be a woman," she said. Wilson-Raybould is a member of the We Wai Kai Nation and a former Regional Chief of the BC Assembly of First Nations.

Calkins later told reporters he found Wilson-Raybould’s answers “completely farcical.”

“It’s not a defence at all. Canadians can see right through it.”

When the Liberals were in opposition, then-deputy leader Ralph Goodale accused Conservative heritage minister Shelley Glover of crossing the line with a Winnipeg fundraiser that included arts community stakeholders.

Goodale, who is now the public safety minister, said at the time the money should be repaid. Glover ended up not accepting the donations.

With files from the Canadian Press

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