12/20/2017 18:00 EST | Updated 05/02/2019 16:54 EDT

Ethics Watchdog’s Report Draws Blunt Conclusions About The Trudeau-Aga Khan Friendship

The PM disagrees with her assessment of the relationship.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson is shown in a composite with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

In an almost year-long investigation into Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's controversial trip to the Bahamas last December, the federal ethics commissioner was forced to confront the vexing question of what makes a true friend.

At least according to the Conflict of Interest Act.

With her report released Wednesday, Mary Dawson concluded that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Aga Khan, leader of spiritual leader of Ismaili Muslims, are perhaps not as tight as Trudeau led on. It's an assessment with which the prime minister, who has repeatedly called the Aga Khan a "close family friend," disagrees.

Trudeau told reporters Wednesday that he fully accepts federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson's report showing he violated conflict rules when he vacationed with his family at the Aga Khan's private island in Bells Cay last year and used his private helicopter to access the destination. An earlier trip his wife and children took to the same island in March 2016 similarly broke the rules.

The watchdog also found Trudeau didn't properly recuse himself on two occasions in May 2016 from private meetings about the Aga Khan and a $15-million grant to the billionaire philanthropist's endowment fund, the Global Centre for Pluralism.

The Conflict of Interest Act bars members or their families from accepting gifts or "advantages" that could be reasonably seen to influence government decisions. Since the Aga Khan and his foundation were registered to lobby the prime minister's office at the time, Dawson deemed the trips inappropriate.

But there is an exception if the person providing a gift to a member is a relative or friend.

And while Trudeau acknowledged he should have taken precautions to clear his trip with the ethics watchdog in advance, he repeated that he believed his relationship with the Aga Khan met that standard.

"I've always considered the Aga Khan a close family friend which is why I didn't clear this family trip in the first place," Trudeau said.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 17, 2016.

Dawson's report shows Trudeau's counsel provided evidence of what he deemed his "deep personal relationship" with the Aga Khan, including that they had each other's personal contact information and have discussed "deeply personal matters" unrelated to their roles. The prime minister even referred to the Aga Khan as "Uncle K," according to the submissions.

The prime minister's counsel also highlighted a personal relationship between Sophie Grégoire Trudeau and the Aga Khan's daughter. According to Dawson's report, Grégoire Trudeau reached out the Aga Khan's daughter to inquire if the family could vacation on the island two times last year because of a "standing invitation" issued by the Aga Khan in 2014.

Dawson's report, however, had some rather blunt assessments of Trudeau's relationship with the Aga Khan.

Here are four key conclusions Dawson made about the Trudeau-Aga Khan friendship.

The Aga Khan and Trudeau hardly spoke for 30 years

Dawson wrote that the Aga Khan struck up a friendship with prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau in the late 1960s which "developed into a family friendship."

But with the exception of Pierre Trudeau's funeral in 2000, she wrote, the current prime minister had "no private or personal interactions" with the Aga Khan between 1983 and the fall of 2013 — after he had become a federal party leader.

"There was no evidence that the Aga Khan ever tried to contact Mr. Trudeau in those 30 years, including when the Aga Khan made official visits to Canada while Mr. Trudeau was a Member of the House of Commons," she wrote.

"Nor is there any evidence that Mr. Trudeau's mother or brother had, except for the funeral, any personal interactions with the Aga Khan after 1983."

When pressed about the issue Wednesday, Trudeau told reporters: "The Aga Khan is a longtime friend of my family's, a friend of mine, a friend to Canada as well."

Dawson says the relationship rekindled 'as a result' of Trudeau becoming Liberal leader

The watchdog wrote that "recent private interactions" began after Trudeau became Liberal leader in 2013 and the frequency increased after he became prime minister in 2015.

In one passage, Dawson wrote that Trudeau told her he "gradually became more comfortable with his own success" after he became a party leader and PM, and believed he could "develop a friendship with the Aga Khan that would not be dependent on his family's relationship with him."

Yet, Dawson ultimately concludes the relationship warmed up because of Trudeau's political success.

"In my view, Mr. Trudeau's description of his own friendship with the Aga Khan suggests that it arose as a result of his position as the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and subsequently from his position as Prime Minister."

Dawson suggests the trips weren't about bonding with the Aga Khan

The watchdog said the Aga Khan described his standing invitation to his island as an "expression" of his warm relationship with Trudeaus, yet she notes the Aga Khan also said he has extended the invitation to "a few close friends."

When Grégoire Trudeau visited the island in March 2016, Dawson wrote, the evidence shows no member of the Aga Khan's family was there. And while planning for the December trip, the Trudeaus were told the Aga Khan and his family may or may not be there.

"These circumstances do not suggest that Mr. Trudeau and the Aga Khan were seeking to fulfil opportunities to spend private time together as friends."

Dawson suggests it's unlikely Trudeau would have scored invites if he wasn't PM

The watchdog wrote that Trudeau and the Aga Khan have a "warm relationship rooted in family history" and shared values.

However, she also stated it is "unlikely" the prime minister's family would be invited to his island "had there not been official interactions between the Government of Canada and the Aga Khan and had Mr. Trudeau not become a significant player on the Canadian political scene."

Since the Aga Khan had business before the government at the time of both trips, Dawson said Trudeau should have known that such gifts could give rise to a real or apparent conflict of interest.

Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson prepares to appear at Commons committee on Parliament Hill on June 10, 2014.

"The evidence suggests that the relationship that developed between them is of two world leaders with commons ideals and goals, who have great respect for one another and whose families share a connection," Dawson wrote.

"Private interactions between Mr. Trudeau and the Aga Khan developed only after Mr. Trudeau became a leading political figure in Canada."

And that's not enough, she concludes, to be considered friends.

At least according to the Conflict of Interest Act.

With files from The Canadian Press

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