By Jordan Press, The Canadian Press
Ottawa: Canada’s ethics watchdog plans to take a closer look at Justin Trudeau’s recent family holiday at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas, fanning the flames of a controversy the government has so far been unable to snuff out.
Trudeau’s holiday with the Aga Khan, a family friend, noted philanthropist and hereditary spiritual leader to the world’s approximately 15 million Ismaili Muslims – bears closer scrutiny, ethics commissioner Mary Dawson confirmed Monday.
In a letter to Blaine Calkins, one of two Conservative MPs who filed formal complaints, Dawson said she will examine both Trudeau’s stay at the island and his use of the Aga Khan’s private helicopter to get there.
Dawson wrote that she has “commenced an investigation” to determine if Trudeau broke two sections of federal ethics laws “in connection with his recent stay at and travel to the Aga Khan’s privately owned island.”
The vacation included Trudeau, his wife and three kids, Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan and Liberal party president Anna Gainey, all of whom took part in helicopter flights between the capital city of Nassau and the secluded island.
The prime minister, who was scheduled to take part in a public town hall later Monday in Dartmouth, N.S., has defended the trip and says he stands ready to discuss it with Dawson. Trudeau’s office said in a statement Monday that the prime minister is “happy to engage with the commissioner” and answer any questions.
The decision marks the first time a sitting prime minister has had his or her personal travel scrutinized by the ethics commissioner under the ethics law brought in a decade ago by the previous Conservative government.
Former prime minister Stephen Harper and several cabinet ministers came under Dawson’s gaze in late 2009 over elements of partisanship in government advertising, but the commissioner closed the file after concluding that no laws were broken.
The Conflict of Interest Act and Trudeau’s own ethics guidelines for his cabinet ministers bar the use of sponsored travel in private aircraft, allowing it only for exceptional circumstances related to the job of prime minister and only with the commissioner’s prior approval.
The act also prohibits a minister or any member of their family from accepting gifts or “advantages” that could reasonably be seen as influencing government decisions. The only exception is if the person providing the gift is a friend.
Trudeau has repeatedly called the Aga Khan a longtime family friend, noting he was a pallbearer at his father’s funeral.
Though he’s not a registered lobbyist, the Aga Khan is also on the board of directors of the Aga Khan Foundation, the beneficiary of tens of millions of dollars in government contributions to international development projects.
Dawson’s letter says she will decide whether the two are friends as defined in legislation “to determine the acceptability of the gift.”
In a letter of his own to Dawson, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair called the flight a “clear-cut violation of the rules,” imploring her to fast-track her probe of the helicopter flight while she takes more time to look into the entire trip.
“The prime minister has every right to take a vacation,” Mulcair wrote. “However, like all other Canadians who take vacations, he does not have the right to break the law.”