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Trudeau violated conflict-of-interest law with Aga Khan trips, ethics watchdog says

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on May 17, 2016. Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson has concluded that Trudeau violated conflict of interest rules when he vacationed last Christmas at the private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan.

Sean Kilpatrick/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Ethics Commissioner has ruled that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau broke Canada's ethics law over two all-expenses-paid family trips to the Bahamas, rejecting the assertion his host was a close friend and dismissing his rationale for accepting helicopter flights to the private island.

A long-awaited report from Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson released on Wednesday revealed that not only did Mr. Trudeau and his family vacation at the Aga Khan's residence last Christmas, the Trudeaus travelled to the private island for another Christmas holiday in 2014. It also said Mr. Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, took a separate vacation there in March, 2016.

The Prime Minister's Office said on Wednesday it did not publicly disclose Ms. Grégoire Trudeau's trip of March, 2016, because it does not proactively release information on the travels of Mr. Trudeau's family members.

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The report said Mr. Trudeau violated four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act regarding two of the family trips last year to Bells Cay. The private island is owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire spiritual leader of the world's Ismaili Muslims, whose organizations deal frequently with the federal government.

Only the two trips in 2016 were found to have violated ethics rules, given that Mr. Trudeau's Liberals were not in government in 2014. Still, Ms. Dawson made it clear there was no justification for failing to consult her about accepting free return flights to the island on a private helicopter.

"There was nothing unusual, unforeseen or unavoidable about this trip," she said.

Mr. Trudeau had maintained he broke no rules because public office holders are allowed to accept gifts from friends. But Ms. Dawson concluded the two men were not friends under the Conflict of Interest Act, having spoken only once in the 30 years before Mr. Trudeau became Liberal Leader.

It is the first time an Ethics Commissioner has found a sitting prime minister to have violated the act since it was passed in 2006. While there is no official sanction against the Prime Minister, the negative findings stand to affect public perceptions.

"I should have taken precautions and cleared my family vacation and dealings with the Aga Khan in advance," Mr. Trudeau told reporters. "I'm sorry I didn't, and in the future, I will be clearing all my family vacations with the commissioner's office."

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The Prime Minister said he considered the Aga Khan a friend and had not expected it would be a problem for his family to take a free holiday at his home.

"The fact is, we work … let me just try to reorder, reorder the thoughts," Mr. Trudeau said, before continuing. "We worked with the lobby – conflict of interest commissioner on a regular basis on a broad range of issues when the issues come up. On this issue of a family vacation with a personal friend, it wasn't considered that there would be an issue there."

The Aga Khan is the founder of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, which was registered to lobby the federal government at the time of the vacations. Discussions were also under way over a $15-million federal grant to the endowment fund of the Global Centre for Pluralism, also founded by the Aga Khan.

"Because there was ongoing official business between the Government of Canada and the Aga Khan at the time each invitation was accepted, Mr. Trudeau, as Prime Minister, was in a position to be able to advance some of the matters of interest to the Aga Khan," Ms. Dawson said.

Ms. Dawson began her investigation after the December, 2016, trip became controversial in January. Since then, Mr. Trudeau has said he did not to report the vacation to the ethics commissioner because the Aga Khan was a "personal family friend."

However, Ms. Dawson pointed out any real relationship was between the Aga Khan and Mr. Trudeau's father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, came after Mr. Trudeau's political rise.

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In 1983, the report said, Pierre Trudeau and his children spent two weeks in the Greek Isles with the Aga Khan, his spouse and children.

"Justin Trudeau had no personal or private interactions with the Aga Khan and his family between 1983 and April 2013, when he became Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, except for his father's funeral in 2000," her report said. "Mr. Trudeau's description of his own friendship with the Aga Khan suggests that it arose as a result of his position as the Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada and subsequently from his position as Prime Minister."

Ms. Dawson said the Aga Khan was not on the island during the trip in March, 2016. While the Aga Khan was there in December, Mr. Trudeau had been told he might not be.

Still, Mr. Trudeau insisted throughout the investigation they had a close link.

"Justin Trudeau said that when he and the Aga Khan saw each other at his father's funeral in 2000, they hugged and he felt an instant re-connection and an instant closeness. Mr. Trudeau said it was as if no time had passed," the report said.

During his news conference, Mr. Trudeau said the commissioner's findings have not swayed his views.

"She made a determination that he is not a family friend. I still consider him a family friend, but moving forward, even on people I consider to be family friends or friends, I will be proactively checking with the … commissioner on any personal travel and vacations," Mr. Trudeau said.

The opposition attacked Mr. Trudeau as an out-of-touch elitist.

"The Liberals continue to believe that there is one set of rules for Liberals and their friends and another set of rules for everyone else," said Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer, who filed an official complaint against the Prime Minister earlier this year.

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh added: "Prime Minister Trudeau has broken the law. … We have a reality where if you are powerful and well-connected, the same rules don't apply."

According to the Aga Khan, the invitation to the Trudeaus to use Bells Cay was made in March, 2014. The report added that Ms. Grégoire Trudeau contacted the Aga Khan's daughter to organize the two trips in 2016, and asked whether she could invite friends. Ms. Grégoire Trudeau used a seaplane, chartered by staff at Bells Cay, to get to the island during the first 2016 trip.

Mr. Trudeau said he believed using a private helicopter to get to the island was justified because of "exceptional circumstances created by the isolation of the destination, the Prime Minister's security requirements, and the impracticality and unavailability of Canadian or Bahamian government aircraft."

Ms. Dawson said that a guidance document the Prime Minister sent to ministers in 2015 stated they could not accept free trips without approval from the Ethics Commissioner.

"In this case, the Prime Minister did not follow his own rule," she said.

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