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Trudeau says he’s open to strengthening ethics laws

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau listens to a question during a town hall event at Western University in London, Ont., on Jan. 11, 2018.

Geoff Robins/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Justin Trudeau says he's open to tightening federal conflict-of-interest laws and strengthening the powers of parliamentary watchdogs after a year in which both he and his Finance Minister were reprimanded by Canada's ethics commissioner.

The Prime Minister made the comments at the conclusion of a cabinet retreat in London, Ont., where the government drafted plans for the final half of its first mandate.

The government is enjoying solid poll numbers and a strong economy, but is coming off a year that ended with a finding by outgoing ethics commissioner Mary Dawson that Mr. Trudeau violated federal ethics laws by accepting a 2016 island vacation hosted by the Aga Khan.

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"I'm always happy to take recommendations from experts, from various people like the outgoing commissioner or the incoming commissioner, on how we can ensure that our institutions and the folks who protect and uphold our institutions continue to be doing the best things, the best way for Canadians," Mr. Trudeau said. "We remain open to looking at ways of improving the role of various commissioners and look forward to having many conversations about that in the coming months."

In an exit interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Dawson noted that she had advocated unsuccessfully for years that Ottawa should plug a loophole that allows MPs to avoid certain ethics rules by holding shares or assets indirectly through a holding company.

It's 'unfortunate' Trudeau broke rules with Aga Khan trips: Mary Dawson (The Canadian Press)

That was the issue at hand in relation to Finance Minister Bill Morneau's decision not to place his assets in a blind trust. That matter is related to an investigation by the commissioner's office into whether he was in a conflict of interest when he introduced pension legislation.

Separately, Mr. Morneau was fined $200 last year by the ethics commissioner for failing to properly disclose a corporate structure related to a villa in France owned by the minister.

As for the government's 2018 policy agenda, Mr. Morneau said he is focused on measures to boost the work-force participation rate of women and to improve federal support for science. Mr. Trudeau said the retreat was largely about how the government will deliver on its remaining promises from the 2015 election campaign.

Perhaps the most challenging outstanding promise facing the government is the pledge to legalize the recreational use of marijuana, which is scheduled to take place in July.

The retreat included a visit by Peter Harder, the government's representative in the Senate, who will be responsible for ensuring the Red Chamber approves the government's marijuana legislation in time.

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Mr. Trudeau said that legislation must be in place before the government looks at the issue of whether to pardon Canadians who currently have convictions for marijuana possession.

"We recognize that anyone who is currently purchasing marijuana is participating in illegal activity that is funding criminal organizations and street gangs and therefore we do not want to encourage in any way people to engage in that behaviour until the law is changed," he said. "Once the law is changed, we will of course reflect on fairness in a way that is responsible, moving forward."

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