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The Globe and Mail

Trudeau's friendship with the Aga Khan should be celebrated, not hidden

Andrew Cohen is a Canadian journalist, author and professor. He is a Fulbright scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

Let us try, once again, to understand – decode, perhaps – this deliciously Canadian contretemps over the Aga Khan, Justin Trudeau and a conflict of interest.

Forgive me. Living in the capital of the world, in the Age of Trump, dulls the senses to high impropriety. It makes one dumb to the exquisite furies and fine sensitivities of my northern compatriots.

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So let's revisit this: The Prime Minister goes on holiday over New Year's. His office does not say where. We learn later that he and his family and some unidentified friends were in the Bahamas, guests of the Aga Khan, on his private island.

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Inevitably, this raises suspicion in Canada, where tall poppies flourish. The harpies alight, accusing Mr. Trudeau of benefiting personally from the largesse of a man who is the founder of a global foundation that receives money from the federal government for its highly praised humanitarian work.

The well-scrubbed Andrew Scheer, who reminds us he was speaker of the house, demands an investigation from the Ethics Commissioner. Mr. Scheer sees a breach of integrity. The breathless Lisa Raitt declares of Mr. Trudeau's faux pas: "This is just mind-numbing." Does it numb her mind like, say, the plight of Syrians in Aleppo?

New Democrat MP Alexandre Boulerice shares their outrage. He flays the PM for accepting "an expensive vacation by someone who receives millions of dollars in funding from his government."

Sadly, that "someone" comes across in this story as just another sly, low "lobbyist," a dime-store remittance man seeking "privileged access" to a naif with the offer of a free holiday. It's absurd.

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It's absurd for this reason: The Aga Khan is one of the world's most respected figures. In 2014, he addressed Parliament, a rare honour; in 2009, he became an honorary citizen of Canada, a rarer honour shared by Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama and Raoul Wallenberg. Both honours were conferred by Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

The Aga Khan Development Network has received some $300-million from Canadian governments of both stripes since 2004. Its development programs in Africa and Asia are innovative and inspiring. (A personal disclaimer: My wife worked for his foundation in Canada more than a decade ago.)

So what's really going on here? And what could have been done differently?

First, the Prime Minister should not have hidden the invitation; rather, he should have celebrated it. He should have said that he was honoured to accept and that his visit was as much business as pleasure. He should not reimburse the government for the cost of his travel on a government jet – as he has promised – because conferring with a figure of the stature of the Aga Khan, however convivial the circumstances, is what a prime minister does.

For some reason, he chose to hide it and apologize for it and parade down Wellington Street in down-filled sackcloth and ashes. As he praised the late Fidel Castro too much, he has praised the Aga Khan too little. Someone is giving the PM bad advice.

Second, Mr. Trudeau should have allowed, without apology, that the Aga Khan is a cherished friend not only of his family (he was an honorary pallbearer at Pierre Trudeau's funeral) but of many distinguished Canadians, including former governor-general Adrienne Clarkson and writer and philosopher John Ralston Saul.

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Mr. Trudeau might have recalled the Aga Khan's generous commitment to the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa and the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto, both of which reflect his affection for Canada. In his commitment to the idea of Canada, His Highness has given more to us than we have given him.

Mr. Trudeau's problem was not that he accepted the invitation but that he forgot that Canadians don't like their leaders rising above their station. At 150 years old, we remain strangely insecure. We are accountants of envy, and the saga of the Aga Khan and Justin Trudeau is the latest entry in our bulging national ledger.

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