Trudeau faces potential ethics probe into role with Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation

A democratic accountability watchdog ruled Trudeau's "membership" unethical. They cited the foundation’s monetary ties with the federal government and the "powerful" position held by Trudeau.

Alex Anas Ahmed Calgary AB

The Conservatives requested yet another investigation into a suspected conflict of interest between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and, this time, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Trudeau remained a member of one of the organization’s governing bodies while prime minister.

"I urge you to open investigations into whether Justin Trudeau may have breached (ethics laws) in respect of his relationship to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation as one of its powerful 'family members'," wrote Conservative candidate and MP Michael Barrett in a letter to Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion on September 1, and as reported by the National Post.

Barrett previously requested an ethics probe into contracts awarded to the prime minister's childhood friend,

The Liberal Research Bureau awarded $75,000 in contracts to Data Sciences Inc. for technical support and training related to software that "assists MPs in their parliamentary engagement with constituents." However, a Globe and Mail report said that another company, NGP VAN, conducted the software training for $1 million since 2016.

In his letter to Dion, he posited whether sitting on a governing body to a foundation as a "succession member" was ethical, given that Trudeau is an MP and the prime minister. "Members" of the foundation are a select group of people that form one of two governing bodies and whose role is to elect the board of directors every year.

The foundation is a non-partisan charity created in 2001 to promote academic research. It received $125 million from the Chretien Liberal government at its conception.

The Conservatives and Democracy Watch, a democratic accountability watchdog, ruled it unethical. They cited the foundation’s monetary ties with the federal government and the "powerful" position held by Trudeau.

However, Trudeau and foundation CEO Pascale Fournier said the Liberal leader withdrew from operations in 2014 and is only a member in-name.

Since entering politics, Trudeau repeatedly faced questions about his involvement after a wealthy Chinese businessman donated about $200,000 to the foundation during a fundraising dinner with the prime minister. Trudeau insisted that he cut all formal ties with the foundation at that time.

"I have not been in any way associated, formally or informally, with the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in many, many years," said Trudeau. "I stepped down from any of my family-related responsibilities shortly after being elected to demonstrate that there is tremendous separation there."

But Barrett and Democracy Watch co-founder Duff Conacher said information contained in the foundation’s latest annual reports casts doubts on that statement.

Though Trudeau had an asterisk next to his name indicating he had "withdrawn" from the foundation "for the duration of his involvement in federal politics," every single report except for one (2018-2019) listed him as a "succession member" during his tenure as prime minister.

In a statement, Fournier confirmed Trudeau remains a "succession family member" but said that is because of "automatic operation of law of the Foundation" and insisted that Trudeau had "committed to remain inactive" while in politics.

However, the Conflict of Interest Act, which governs the conduct of all ministers and the prime minister, prohibits the prime minister from continuing as "a director or officer in a corporation or organization."

Melanie Rushworth, Director of Communications, wrote in an email that only the federal ethics commissioner could grant exceptions, which are posted on the commissioner’s website. Exceptions include positions in philanthropic or charitable organizations, but only where that activity is "not incompatible" with that person’s public duties.

"There is no such posting for Mr. Trudeau pertaining to the Trudeau Foundation," she said. But Rushworth added that "regular memberships" in organizations are not prohibited and are not required to be disclosed publicly.

Conacher countered that the powers wielded by "members" of the foundation are more akin to an officer position than just regular membership.

In a December 2014 letter provided by the foundation, Trudeau confirmed he withdrew from its affairs. He added that he received advice in 2012 from then-Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson that his involvement was "acceptable."

"Trudeau shouldn’t be a succession number 'withdrawn'; he should not be a succession member at all. They may say that he’s not a director or officer position, but (foundation Members) choose the board. I think it is an officer position," said Conacher.

"He shouldn't be a member of something that is not a Crown corporation, and that has ongoing dealings with [the] government," he added.

Liberal campaign spokesperson Brook Simpson reiterated on Wednesday that since 2014, Trudeau "played no role in the foundation, let alone any role in the governance of the organization." He had "fully complied with his ethics obligations on this matter."

In his letter, Barrett wrote that "a 'member' of the Foundation is not the same as, say, a member of a club or volunteer association; it is essentially the equivalent of being a major shareholder."

"The Foundation’s family members are in a very powerful position to direct and control the Foundation’s affairs," he added. "Despite having 'withdrawn' from the affairs of the Foundation, as Mr. Trudeau has claimed, his rights and powers as a family member of the Foundation did not lapse, extinguish or cease. It is, at most, a voluntary restraint against exercising them."

Since Trudeau became leader of the Liberal Party of Canada in 2013, a National Post investigation into the matter found that gifts to the foundation had increased significantly. A large portion of the charity’s donors, directors and members were also directly tied to organizations lobbying the federal government at the time.

In a 2016 audit of the foundation’s 2013-2014 activities consulted by the National Post, auditors for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada (ISED) note that the agreement clearly states that members of the House of Commons "cannot be appointed" as a foundation "member."

Auditors recommended "that The Foundation shall comply" with that part of the agreement after noting Trudeau’s "family member" status since he was first elected in 2008.

According to ISED spokesperson Hans Parmar, no sanctions were imposed on the foundation since the matter was considered resolved by 2014, when Trudeau withdrew from the foundation’s activities.

If pursued by the current ethics commissioner Mario Dion, this would mark Trudeau's fourth ethics investigation. Two of the three previous probes ruled that the prime minister contravened the Conflict of Interest Act.

In December 2017, Dion's predecessor Mary Dawson found Trudeau contravened the Conflict of Interest Act when he accepted a vacation on the Aga Khan's private island.

In August 2019, Dion ruled he contravened the Conflict of Interest Act by using his authority to try and influence Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould regarding the SNC Lavalin scandal. The firm faced fraud and corruption charges dating between 2001 and 2011 when they paid Libyan officials over $48 million in bribes.

However, in May 2021, Dion found Trudeau did not commit an ethics violation in a proposed deal with WE Charity to administer a youth program at $900 million to Canadian taxpayers.


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