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Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dominic LeBlanc addresses the media in Saskatoon, Sept. 12, 2018Matthew Smith/The Canadian Press

Cabinet minister Dominic LeBlanc violated the country’s ethics act when he awarded a lucrative clam licence to an Indigenous business group that had a family connection, the federal Ethics Commissioner has found.

Mario Dion issued a report on Wednesday saying Mr. LeBlanc, who was then the Fisheries Minister, was in a conflict of interest when he approved a multimillion-dollar Arctic surf clam licence for the Five Nations Clam Co. in February. Mr. Dion said the minister should have recused himself from the decision because a first cousin of his wife was involved in the winning bid.

“A first cousin of Mr. LeBlanc’s spouse, Mr. Gilles Thériault, could have benefitted financially from an Arctic surf clam licence being awarded to the Five Nations Clam Co.,” Mr. Dion said. “Mr. Thériault would have served as the company’s general manager if the process to grant it the licence had been completed.”

Mr. LeBlanc’s decision was mired in controversy from the beginning, with the Opposition seizing on the involvement of both the brother of a sitting Liberal MP and a former Liberal MP in the Five Nations bid. A court challenge was also launched by one of the losing bidders.

Mr. LeBlanc, who is now Intergovernmental Affairs Minister, had played down his relationship to Mr. Thériault, telling the ethics commissioner they had met only 10 times in the past 15 years. But Mr. Dion discovered the minister and his wife’s cousin had met four times before and after the announcement of the licence being awarded to Five Nations.

The Prime Minister and Mr. LeBlanc had steadfastly denied there was any conflict of interest and that family or party ties played any role in the decision to award the Arctic surf clam licence. However, Mr. LeBlanc’s successor at Fisheries, Jonathan Wilkinson, cancelled the Five Nations licence shortly after assuming the post this summer.

There is no penalty for violating the ethics act. Mr. LeBlanc, who was in Saskatoon Wednesday for a Liberal caucus meeting, told reporters that he accepted the commissioner’s findings without reservation.

“He determined while no preferential treatment was given and while no benefit was created, I should have consulted his office before making this decision,” he said. “We will work with the commissioner’s office to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set the tone for his cabinet ministers when he and his family accepted two free vacations in 2016 to the private island of the Aga Khan, trips that former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson found were a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act.

“Ultimately the penalty should come in 2019 when Canadians vote out a Liberal government that has allowed this culture of entitlement to set in where Liberal ministers feel it is up to them to interpret the rules," Mr. Scheer told reporters.

Mr. Dion said that under the Conflict of Interest Act, elected officials and their staff are in a conflict of interest when, through their official duties, they provide an opportunity to a relative or friend to further their private interests.

“As Minister, Mr. LeBlanc was exercising an official power when he decided to pursue issuing the licence to the Five Nations Clam Co., and his decision provided an opportunity to further Mr. Thériault’s private interests,” Mr. Dion said.

He found that Mr. LeBlanc – a close friend and trusted confidant of Mr. Trudeau – had contravened the act by making a decision that placed him in a conflict of interest, and contravened another section by not recusing himself.

Mr. Dion said the licence decision was first brought to his attention by a Conservative MP, who raised concerns with the involvement of Edgar Samson, brother of Liberal MP Darrell Samson. Mr. Dion said in his report that the Conservative MP’s request did not meet the criteria for launching an investigation and he only began one when he learned of Mr. Thériault’s involvement.

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