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federal politics

Minister of Finance Bill Morneau announces the government's economic update during Question Period on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on Thursday, October 19, 2017.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau pushed back against continued questioning of his personal finances on Friday, telling media that he reports to the federal Ethics Commissioner, not to them.

"The process we have in our country isn't that I report to journalists on my personal situation; it's that I report to the Ethics Commissioner," Mr. Morneau said at a news conference in Waterloo, Ont.

"I make sure that she fully understands my situation."

Friday was the fifth day of questions for Mr. Morneau over the steps the former Bay Street executive is taking to insulate himself from any possibility of conflict-of-interest allegations.

The 55-year-old minister bristled at repeated questions concerning his holdings, and in one instance reproached a journalist for asking about several numbered companies he owns.

"So it's a question about numbered companies and why they don't have names? ... Seriously?" Mr. Morneau said.

The Finance Minister reversed course on Thursday after days of controversy and announced he will sell all his shares in his family firm, Morneau Shepell, and put all remaining assets in a blind trust beyond his reach – measures he opted not to take nearly two years ago when he entered public life.

The controversy came to light on Monday when The Globe and Mail reported that Mr. Morneau did not place his substantial personal holdings into a blind trust when he entered office, as Justin Trudeau did with his family fortune, a move the Prime Minister holds up as the gold standard for avoiding conflicts of interest in federal politics.

Mr. Morneau's effort to put the controversy over his personal wealth behind him comes as he struggles to make complicated changes to tax policy that have stirred a backlash among small-business owners. On Friday, he was in Waterloo to assure the heart of Canada's tech sector the changes will not block investment capital.

He stressed that the rules do not require him to divest his substantial assets and that he was embarking on this course only to quell criticism that he said was derailing his work in the Finance Department.

"This is a way to make absolutely sure – over and above what was required of me – that there is no question I am working on behalf of Canadians [and] trying to make a difference for the country."

Opposition parties demanded Mr. Morneau apologize for misleading Canadians after telling news organizations and his former company nearly two years ago he would put his holdings in a blind trust.

(Mr. Morneau's holdings include shares in Morneau Shepell, one of four major players in the human resources-pension management sector in Canada and a company whose fortunes can be affected by a federal finance minister's decisions. Mr. Morneau's shares are worth about $20.6-million.)

"The Finance Minister says he is working for the middle class, all the while attempting to justify that his actions were ethical, showing again just how out of touch he is with the reality facing most Canadians," NDP MP Murray Rankin said in the Commons. "The minister is in charge of the country's finances and he should not be allowed to maintain control over tens of millions of dollars in personal investments in a company he regulates. That is common sense. When will he take personal ownership that what he did was wrong and just apologize to Canadians?"

The Finance Minister's defence all week has been that he did as instructed by Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson, and that he decided not to sell his shares or put his assets in a blind trust because of what she had advised him. Ms. Dawson has corrected the record by saying she told him it "wasn't required" under existing rules because he holds his shares indirectly through a holding company.

She also revealed that she has asked Ottawa to eliminate this loophole so that even securities held indirectly through a holding company would have to be divested through share sale or blind trust.

The Prime Minister's Office declined to answer this week when asked whether the Liberals would close this loophole. Mr. Morneau also did not directly answer that question, saying only that the government would take "those sorts of ideas into consideration."

The Finance Minister's office clarified on Friday that the entire shareholdings he would sell is about one million shares, and this includes those of his spouse and children. Morneau Shepell says he owned 2.2 million shares when he quit the company in October, 2015, but his office has said he sold all but one million before his first filing to the Ethics Commisioner after taking office.

Mr. Morneau's office has not disclosed who bought the 1.2 million shares.