OTTAWA — Justin Trudeau, who came into office vowing to be the gold standard in transparency and ethical behaviour, became Wednesday the first prime minister to violate federal conflict of interest rules over a series of family vacations last year.
Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson concluded Trudeau violated the rules when he vacationed last Christmas at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan and when his family vacationed on the same island months earlier in March 2016.
Dawson found that the Trudeaus' visit to the island — and the prime minister hopping aboard the Aga Khan's private helicopter to get there — broke sections of the Conflict of Interest Act that prohibits a minister or any member of their family from accepting gifts or "advantages" that could reasonably be seen as influencing government decisions.
Broke ethics code with helicopter ride
Moreover, she 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 of the Global Centre for Pluralism.
The outgoing ethics commissioner's long-awaited report suggests that Trudeau could have avoided this outcome had he come to her before going on the trip that began on Dec. 26, 2016. She concludes that he failed to follow his own ethics rules for cabinet ministers and that he should have been more careful to arrange his affairs as prime minister to avoid potential conflicts.
Trudeau publicly apologized Wednesday for not going to Dawson before the vacation to get her clearance — something Dawson hinted she may have given. He said he didn't believe the vacation would be an ethical concern because he'd been told — he didn't specify by whom — there was no issue since the Aga Khan is a friend.
Dawson, however, concluded the spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims, couldn't be considered a friend — a conclusion Trudeau disputed.
In future, Trudeau said he plans to ask the ethics commissioner to clear all his personal vacations.
"I take full responsibility for it," he told a hastily-called news conference.
"We need to make sure that the office of the prime minister is without reproach and in the future including on (vacations with) family friends and personal family trips, we will be proactively working with the office of the commissioner to ensure that there is no conflict of interest, no appearance of conflict of interest."
The public shaming will be the biggest penalty Trudeau faces for violating the rules. The only penalties under the act are fines handed out to those who fail to meet reporting requirements — for instance, Finance Minister Bill Morneau had to pay $200 for failing to disclose a his role in a private corporation that owns his villa in France — and Dawson's office confirmed those penalties don't apply in this case.
Trudeau may have avoided being found in violation of the federal statute had Dawson agreed that he and the Aga Khan were friends, since the ethics rules make an exception for gifts given by a friend. But Dawson said that exception doesn't apply in this case because Trudeau and the Aga Khan's friendship only blossomed after the prime minister became Liberal leader in 2013.
Before that, the two hadn't spoken for 30 years.
A year after becoming Liberal leader, the Aga Khan sent a standing invitation for Trudeau and his family to visit Bells Cay, suggesting it would provide Trudeau with some private family vacation time. It was Trudeau's wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, who contacted the Aga Khan's daughter about vacationing on the island in March 2016 and then over Christmas last year.
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In both cases, the Trudeaus were told that the Aga Khan and his family may not be present, which led Dawson to remark: "These circumstances do not suggest that Mr. Trudeau and the Aga Khan were seeking to fulfil opportunities to spend private time together as friends."
NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen called Dawson's report "disturbing" and said it "speaks to the culture of entitlement" around the prime minister. Moreover, he said it undermines Trudeau's entire defence of the trip.
"If Trudeau ... hoped to make the case that 'It is no big deal, this was just friends hanging out together at the cottage,' she didn't' believe it," he said.
The Trudeau family was accompanied on last December's vacation by Liberal MP Seamus O'Regan and his husband, and Liberal party president Anna Gainey and her husband, Tom Pitfield. They all flew on the Aga Khan's private helicopter, which is the main link between the Bells Cay and Nassau.
Dawson's report notes that the RCMP didn't have any security concerns with Trudeau taking the helicopter ride.
Dawson says the Aga Khan and his foundation were registered to lobby Trudeau's office in December 2016, meaning the vacation and helicopter ride "could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau in his capacity as Prime Minister." But she also found no evidence that Trudeau had asked for, or ordered officials to do anything to further the Aga Khan's private interest.