Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says he made use of the private helicopter of the Aga Khan during a family vacation at the billionaire Ismaili Muslim leader's retreat in the Bahamas in what appears to be a direct breach of government ethics rules.
Mr. Trudeau, who had kept the vacation secret for days and now faces opposition calls for an ethics probe, was asked at a news conference Thursday how he got to the Aga Khan's private island – located 115 kilometres from the Nassau airport.
Mr. Trudeau and his family flew to Nassau aboard a government Challenger jet in late December. He was joined on the vacation by Newfoundland Liberal MP Seamus O'Regan and his husband as well as Liberal Party president Anna Gainey and her husband.
"The travel back and forth from Nassau to the island happens on the Aga Khan's private helicopter, which he offered us the use of," Mr. Trudeau told reporters. "It is something that we look forward to discussing with the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner, but we don't see an issue on that."
Mr. Trudeau's own Open and Accountable Government rules state that "ministers and parliamentary secretaries must not accept sponsored travel … this includes all travel, non-commercial, chartered or private aircraft for any purpose except in exceptional circumstances" without the approval of Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson.
Mr. Trudeau conceded he did not seek Ms. Dawson's sign-off but said that he believes he had not done anything unethical.
"The fact is that I am engaging with the Conflict of Interest Commissioner to answer any questions she may have," Mr. Trudeau said. "The fact is, as I have said many times, the Aga Khan is a personal family friend and travel to and from the island only happens through private means."
NDP Leader Tom Muclair urged Mr. Trudeau to reveal all the details of his trip as he accused him of breaking his own conflict rules.
"This is a clear conflict of interest and it is worrisome that the Prime Minister has been so evasive about the specifics of the trip," Mr. Mulcair said. "He claims that this was a family vacation and not government work. These were not exceptional circumstances and therefore cannot excuse the use of a private helicopter."
Two Conservative MPs – Andrew Scheer and Blaine Calkins – have already asked Ms. Dawson to investigate the vacation at the Bell Island retreat because the Aga Khan's foundation has received $300-million in Canadian international development funds and is a registered lobbyist with the foreign affairs department.
On Thursday, Conservative MP Alexander Nuttall urged Ms. Dawson to probe the use of the private helicopter.
"Quite frankly, it is alarming when you think about the over $300,000 salary that the Prime Minister is receiving and Canadians, who earn $60,000 a year, are paying for their own vacations," Mr. Nuttall said. "The fact the Prime Minister held this detail [helicopter flights] away from the Ethics Commission just shows he is not open and transparent."
The Prime Minister's disclosure came as he was on the first day of a campaign-style swing through eastern Ontario where he took selfies, made small talk with Canadians in coffee shops and fielded questions at town halls.
The opposition parties have criticized the Liberals for using public money for the cross-country tour, which they say is an effort to limit the political damage from the Trudeau family vacation and Liberal Party cash-for-access fundraisers.
On the first day of the tour, Mr. Trudeau faced a series of tough and unscripted questions from Canadians on everything from disabled veterans and clean drinking water on reserves to the Phoenix pay debacle.
"Release true numbers so Canadians can really know what a colossal fiasco Phoenix really is," said one defence department employee, who asked in the Kingston town hall about the handling of the government-pay system.
"This is an extremely serious situation that we understand is absolutely unacceptable and we are doing everything we can to try and fix it," Mr. Trudeau said.
One woman criticized Mr. Trudeau for denying long-term pensions for disabled veterans after he promised during the election campaign to restore them while another audience member urged him to honour his pledge to change the voting system.
Mr. Trudeau responded by saying the government is considering the various issues.