Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday he has no ties to a foundation set up in his father's name — an organization that received some $200,000 in donations from a wealthy Chinese businessman shortly after he attended a fundraising dinner with the prime minister.
"I have not been in any way associated formally, or informally, with Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation in many, many, years," he told reporters after arriving in Liberia for the first leg of a trip to Africa.
"I stepped down from any of my family-related responsibilities shortly after having gotten elected, in order to demonstrate that there is a tremendous separation there."
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Trudeau said the foundation was established as an "educational scholarship" program, and collects donations to fund research into the humanities.
He said the foundation has recruited mentors and board members from all political parties, such as former Conservative MP Chuck Strahl and NDP MP Megan Leslie, and "they will reassure you that they're very much separate from anything I do as prime minister or as leader of the Liberal Party."
Strahl, however, has abruptly resigned from the organization.
In a statement sent to CBC News, Gwenola Appéré, the communications and marketing adviser for the foundation, confirmed the former cabinet minister had written to the charity's CEO to resign from his role, effective immediately.
"While I have always supported the goals of the foundation to promote discussion of and education in the humanities, I am unwilling to be used as a foil for the Liberal Party of Canada, who has chosen to use my participation in foundation activities as some sort of cover for their own questionable conduct," Strahl wrote in a letter dated Nov. 23.
Later Thursday, in an interview with CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Strahl said he had enjoyed working with the foundation, and encouraged those interested in the work it does funding post-graduate humanities scholarships to "look into it and see if you'd like to sponsor and help them," but that he could no longer be involved.
"My problem, of course, is I'm no longer in the House of Commons, so I'm kind of at a disadvantage and I'm just not going to be used as an excuse for how they're handling themselves. They can justify their own existence without dragging my name into it," Strahl told host Rosemary Barton.
PM attended 19 fundraisers
The Globe and Mail reported Tuesday that Trudeau attended the fundraiser in May at the Toronto home of Benson Wong, the chair of the Chinese Business Chamber of Commerce.
Wealthy Chinese businessman Zhang Bin, a political adviser to the Chinese government in Beijing, was among those present. He is the president of the state-approved China Cultural Industry Association and the president of Toronto-based Shenglin Financial Group Inc.
Also attending $1,500-a-plate fundraiser was Shenglin Xian, who at the time was awaiting approval from federal regulators for his bank to operate in Canada. Wealth One Bank of Canada was given final approval a few months later in July, according to the report.
Zhang and a partner, Niu Gensheng, subsequently finalized a donation that added up to $1 million: the $200,000 donation to the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, $750,000 to the University of Montreal's law faculty for scholarships, and $50,000 to build a statue of the former prime minister.
While the prime minister has previously faced questions about his cabinet ministers headlining fundraisers, data produced by the Liberal Party and supplied to CBC News shows that Trudeau himself has also been a mainstay at 19 party events.
Many of the events had a ticket price of $1,500 a person.
'There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties.' - Government guidelines
Earlier in November, for example, Trudeau flew to Vancouver to announce a national coastal strategy, and then attended a private fundraiser that night at the home of a volunteer, the party said.
He also attended a Laurier Club "appreciation event" in Vancouver that night.
Membership in the club is restricted to those who make the maximum donation allowable under Elections Canada rules: $1,500 a year.
In exchange, they are promised invitations to events across the country "attended by prominent members of the Liberal Party," where they can meet "business and community leaders with similar values."
'No preferential access to government'
Trudeau has faced persistent questions from opposition members in the House of Commons who say the practice of ministers of the Crown attending such pricey fundraising events breaks rules the prime minister himself crafted to avoid conflicts of interest.
He released new non-binding ethics guidelines on Nov. 27, 2015, called Open and Accountable Government.
The 87-page document says ministers and parliamentary secretaries "must ensure that political fundraising activities or considerations do not affect, or appear to affect, the exercise of their official duties or the access of individuals or organizations to government."
"There should be no preferential access to government, or appearance of preferential access, accorded to individuals or organizations because they have made financial contributions to politicians and political parties," the guidelines read.
The issue first emerged in April, when CBC News reported Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was attending a $500-a-head Liberal Party event at a top Toronto law firm — where would-be attendees were told they were "fortunate to have secured an evening of her time."
Trudeau has insisted that fundraising rules at the federal level are among the strictest in the country, and that when it comes to collecting money, political parties must report those donations publicly to Elections Canada.
Shut down committee debate
On Thursday, an attempt by New Democrats on the Commons ethics committee to call Jon Dugal, the Liberal Party's co-ordinator of development and events, to testify about the party's fundraising practices was shut down when Liberal MPs on the committee moved to end debate on the motion.
Liberal Party spokesman Braeden Caley wrote CBC News to challenge a statement Wednesday by Conservative MP Blaine Calkins on CBC News Network's Power & Politics — that the previous government led by Stephen Harper never held similar events.
Caley listed several events with former Conservative cabinet ministers or Harper himself over the last few years, including an October event with contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.
When taking power last year, Trudeau said his government would be held to a higher standard.
Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has said the so-called pay-to-play practice is "not very savoury" and is calling for changes to Canada's law to restrict the practice.
This story has been changed to correct the name of the person who hosted the fundraiser and clarify who made the donations.Nov 25, 2016 8:50 AM ET