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Former ethics commissioner says 'it's unfortunate' Trudeau didn't consider pitfalls before Aga Khan trip

Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson told the Commons ethics committee Wednesday it is "unfortunate" that the prime minister did not consider the potential ethical pitfalls of accepting a free vacation to the Aga Khan's private island.

Mary Dawson earlier found Justin Trudeau breached 4 sections of the Conflict of Interest Act

Mary Dawson, Canada's former ethics commissioner, spoke before the Commons ethics committee on Wednesday, including on her finding that Justin Trudeau breached four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act. 'It would have been much better [for Trudeau] to check before' he took a 2016 vacation to the Aga Khan's island, said Dawson. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson told the Commons ethics committee Wednesday it is "unfortunate" that the prime minister did not consider the potential ethical pitfalls of accepting a free vacation to the Aga Khan's private island.

Dawson said the whole saga — and her finding that Justin Trudeau breached four sections of the Conflict of Interest Act — could have been avoided if he had checked with her office before jetting off to Bell Island for a Christmas 2016 holiday. She said she "probably" would have counselled him against accepting such a gift from a man who is head of a charitable organization that lobbies the federal government for funds.

"It would have been much better to check before," Dawson said under questioning from NDP MP Nathan Cullen at the hearing in Ottawa. "I didn't know about this stuff for a long time."

When asked if she was surprised the prime minister did not feel accepting such a gift would be an ethical breach, she said she said it was "unfortunate" he — or his senior advisers — did not think of such considerations in advance.

Dawson also said she is now recommending that the act be amended to remove exceptions for gifts from "friends," as it is simply too difficult to define who exactly is a friend. The act currently allows public office holders to accept gifts or "other advantages" received from friends or relatives, something she said creates an unnecessary burden on all parties involved to prove they can reasonably call themselves friends.

Dawson shakes hands with NDP MP Nathan Cullen before appearing before the Commons committee on Parliament Hill in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Trudeau had long defended the trip as simply a visit with a longtime family friend. 

Dawson testified that she informed Trudeau in October, two months before her report was released, about her "findings of fact," but not her final conclusions, namely her belief that the Aga Khan was not Trudeau's "friend" per se. Dawson said even if she found Trudeau and the Aga Khan were friends, there would have been ethical — albeit different — violations related to their dealings.

If the two were friends, Trudeau would have been in trouble for sitting in on two meetings where a grant to the Aga Khan's foundation was discussed, but not the trip, Dawson told the committee. In the opposite scenario, he would have been in trouble over the trip — in particular for using the Aga Khan's private helicopter.

"One way or another, there was going to be a problem," Dawson testified.

Politicians, including the prime minister, can meet old friends, but "better be careful" if that friend lobbies or has dealings with the federal government, she said.

Dawson ultimately ruled Trudeau and the Aga Khan could not call themselves "friends" as defined under the ethics code. Her investigations showed that besides the Aga Khan's attendance at the funeral of his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in 2000, the younger Trudeau had no interactions with the Aga Khan between 1983 and the fall of 2013, a span of 30 years.

Trudeau and his family stayed at the Aga Khan's home on Bell Island in the Bahamas from Dec. 26, 2016, to Jan. 4, 2017. Trudeau later publicly confirmed he was taken there by the Aga Khan's private helicopter.

Trudeau on cross-country tour

Opposition members of the committee had pushed for Trudeau to appear to answer questions about the trip, but Liberal MPs, who hold a majority on that committee, rebuffed such a request. Trudeau is currently on a cross-country town hall tour, and will meet with his cabinet colleagues at a retreat in London, Ont., on Thursday.

Conservative MP Peter Kent again proposed a similar motion Wednesday to haul the prime minister before the committee to answer questions relating to Dawson's testimony — something that was defeated along partisan lines by a 6-3 vote.

After investigating the prime minister for the better part of a year, Dawson found he violated four provisions of the act by accepting the free vacation.

She also found Trudeau contravened part of the act when he didn't recuse himself from private meetings with the spiritual leader in May 2016 about a $15-million grant to the endowment fund of the Aga Khan's Global Centre for Pluralism.

After the report's release late last year — an investigation she dubbed the "Trudeau Report" — the prime minister apologized.

"I'm sorry I didn't [check with the commissioner before booking the vacation], and in the future I will be clearing all my family vacations with the commissioner," he said.

Dawson said Wednesday such a commitment is proof the ethics review process works even though the act levies only minor monetary penalties on someone who is found to have breached the act.

She said she doesn't believe steeper fines will ensure better compliance with the act, but rather investigations such as this one, which generate substantial publicity and political fallout, are sufficient.

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