Trudeau Violated Multiple Conflict Laws When He Accepted a Family Holiday to Aga Khan’s Island
Justin Trudeau was haunted by the ghost of Christmas past Wednesday when a federal watchdog ruled that he violated ethics rules with a family trip to the Aga Khan’s private island in Bahamas.
Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson said Trudeau broke multiple conflict laws in accepting a family vacation at Bells Cay in December 2016 — a trip organized by his wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
And in a damning report released Wednesday, she faulted the prime minister and his family for hitching rides to the island on private aircraft organized by the Aga Khan’s staff during two of their visits.
Trudeau knew well the extent of the Aga Khan’s official dealings with the federal government and that should have been a red flag, Dawson wrote.
“Mr. Trudeau failed to arrange his private affairs in a manner that would prevent him from being placed in a conflict of interest. Neither Mr. Trudeau nor his family should have vacationed on the Aga Khan’s private island,” she said.
In a hastily called press conference on Parliament Hill Wednesday, a contrite Trudeau apologized and said he will be clearing all future personal travel with the ethics commissioner.
“(The report) makes it very clear I should have taken precautions and cleared my family vacation and dealings with the Aga Khan in advance,” Trudeau said.
“I’m sorry I didn’t.”
He told reporters that because he viewed the Aga Khan as a friend — even though Dawson stated they rarely talked until recently — he didn’t think the free vacation would be a conflict, saying that he sought a location where he could enjoy “quality family time.”
“On this issue of a family vacation with a personal friend, it wasn't considered that there would be an issue there. Obviously, obviously, there was a mistake,” he said.
“The issue moving forward will be something that I, and no doubt future prime ministers, will take much more seriously and be much clearer about proactively verifying even family related friends’ travel with, in the future,” Trudeau said.
Asked if anyone in his office would pay a price for the lapse in judgment, Trudeau said the buck stopped with him. “This was a family vacation that I am responsible for and I take responsibility,” he said.
The Aga Khan Foundation, a registered charity that delivers international development programming around the world, is registered to lobby the House of Commons and various branches of government. Since 1981, the government has supported foundation projects with almost $330 million in funding.
Dawson concluded the trips could be seen as an attempt to influence Trudeau, particularly when the Aga Khan’s foundation was registered to lobby the Office of the Prime Minister.
Two days before a March 2016 trip to the island by Grégoire Trudeau, her children and a friend, a representative of the Aga Khan asked for a formal meeting with Trudeau. When that meeting happened in May, the two leaders discussed, among other things, a $15-million federal grant to the Aga Khan’s Global Centre for Pluralism.
In September 2016, the Aga Khan called and followed up with a letter asking that Trudeau intervene in a diplomatic matter involving a Canadian corporation and a foreign country, the report stated.
“The Aga Khan concluded his letter with a wish that he and Mr. Trudeau could soon meet on his island,” Dawson wrote.
The ethics commissioner said there was clearly ongoing official business between the federal government and Aga Khan at the time each invitation to visit the island was accepted and the prime minister was in a position to advance the Aga Khan’s interests.
“This leads to the conclusion that the gifts could reasonably be seen to have been given to influence Mr. Trudeau in the exercise of an official power, duty or function,” the report stated.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said the ruling raises serious questions about the prime minister’s ethical judgment.
“It’s a serious lapse in judgment. For the prime minister not to realize there was a conflict in the first place is a tremendous lack of judgment,” Scheer told reporters on Parliament Hill.
“It does seem like this prime minister made the decision that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission,” he said.
Dawson further ruled that:
- Trudeau failed to order his private affairs in a manner to guard against conflicts of interest, as required by law.
- Trudeau should not have accepted a private helicopter ride to Bells Cay.
- And the prime minister failed to remove himself from two conversations that could have furthered the private interest of the Global Centre for Pluralism, the Aga Khan’s charitable organization.
Dawson’s report notes, however, that there is no evidence Trudeau actually advanced the private interest of the Aga Khan or any institution he controls.
She noted that while the Aga Khan had links to the Trudeau family, starting with Pierre Trudeau, son Justin had no personal or private interactions with the spiritual leader and his family between 1983 and April 2013, when he became Liberal leader, except for his father’s funeral in 2000.
With Trudeau’s political rise, the two began to speak more often, with the Aga Khan often initiating phone calls, Dawson said.
The Aga Khan told Dawson’s office that he extended a standing invitation to Trudeau in March 2014, to use the island for private family time. Trudeau took up the invitation later in December 2014, when he accepted a vacation on the island for him, his family and other relatives. At the time he was Liberal leader but before he became prime minister.
In February 2016, Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, reached out to the Aga Khan’s daughter to ask about the possibility of an island vacation the following month. Grégoire Trudeau travelled to the island with her children and a friend in March 2016.
In July 2016, Grégoire Trudeau reached out to the Aga Khan’s daughter and asked about another island vacation, this time at Christmas. And she wanted to invite friends to come along too.
Those friends were Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan — now Veterans Affairs Minister — and Liberal party president Anna Gainey and their spouses.
A spokesperson for O’Regan refused to comment Wednesday on his participation on the trip in light of the ethics commissioners’ findings.
Last year’s Caribbean vacation cost taxpayers at least $127,000, including $71,988 for the RCMP security detail, $32,000 for the use of the government's CC-144 Challenger jet and about $15,000 for the transportation, accommodation and per diems of staff from Global Affairs Canada.
Trudeau said he plans to spend this holiday break closer to home, with time at Harrington Lake, an official residence in the Gatineau Hills, and a trip to the Rockies.
A spokesperson for Trudeau said later that the prime minister and his family are not staying with friends during their trip out west. Cameron Ahmed said the prime minister’s office is working with the ethics commissioner office on plans for the upcoming vacation.