Trudeau may have 'blind spot' on ethics, says former parliamentary watchdog

The former parliamentary ethics watchdog that found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau guilty of violating the ethics act for vacationing on a private island owned by the Aga Khan says the prime minister may have a “blind spot” when it comes to ethical matters.

Mary Dawson says Trudeau's relationship with WE Charity also must be probed

Former conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson says Trudeau may have a "blind spot" when it comes to conflict of interest concerns. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The former parliamentary ethics watchdog who found Prime Minister Justin Trudeau guilty of violating the Conflict of Interest Act for vacationing on a private island owned by the Aga Khan says the prime minister may have a "blind spot" when it comes to ethical matters.

"One doesn't continue to do the same thing twice," Mary Dawson told CBC News Network's Power & Politics today. "There seems to be a little bit of a blind spot or something there."

Late last month, Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion launched an investigation into Trudeau's role in the government's decision to choose WE Charity — which has ties to Trudeau's family — to administer a $900 million summer student grant program.

The charity and the federal government have since parted ways on the project.

Trudeau and his mother, Margaret, have appeared at a number of WE Day events, while Trudeau's wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, hosts a podcast for the group called "WE Well-being."

Watch: Former conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson on the WE Charity controversy:

'There seems to be a little bit of a blind spot or something there' | Mary Dawson

3 years ago
Duration 8:22
Power & Politics speaks to former conflict of interest and ethics commissioner Mary Dawson about the WE Charity controversy.

Initially, WE Charity said members of the Trudeau family were not paid for appearing at WE events, although Sophie Grégoire Trudeau had been reimbursed for travel expenses.

Late last week, it emerged that Trudeau's mother Margaret has was paid approximately $250,000 for speaking at 28 events, while his brother Alexandre spoke at eight events and received about $32,000

Conservative MP Michael Barrett and NDP MP Charlie Angus separately wrote to Dion's office asking him to examine the prime minister's conduct in relation to the contract. Those letters and the decision to launch an investigation came before the news broke that two members of Trudeau's family were paid for their appearances.

Dawson said that new information changes the nature of the investigation into Trudeau's actions.

"We know now that there's family that will benefit, that potentially have a beneficial situation with the person that got the contract," Dawson told host Vassy Kapelos. "There's the question of the extent to which Mr. Trudeau himself had a relationship, and all that has to be looked into."

Today, Angus wrote Dion again to say that all MPs were warned of the potential for a conflict of interest in April when they were asked to identify organizations that "were ready and willing to hire students who had been displaced because of the COVID crisis."

"If MP offices were made aware of the conflict of interest obligations regarding the the recommendations for small projects, how it it possible that such obligations were not explained to the prime minister and finance minister as they made their decisions over such a massive outlay of funds?" Angus asked in the letter. 

The day after the payments became public, the Opposition Conservatives wrote RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki asking the Mounties to investigate the student grant program and the seven other federal grants and contributions — valued at more than $5 million — that WE has received from Ottawa since 2017.

"I encourage the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate the possibility of criminal offences arising from these disturbing facts. You and the very able members of the national police force possess the necessary skills, expertise and tools to get to the bottom of this," Barrett said in the letter.

Bloc Leader Yves-François Blanchet has called on Trudeau to step aside from his office and hand the reins to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland while the probes of his conduct play out.

Today, Blanchet said that while he wants the prime minister and finance minister to appear before parliamentary committees to answer questions, he does not support the call from the Conservatives for a police investigation.

"We cannot order a police investigation like it was a pizza. It does not work that way," he said. "Police will make its own decision about an investigation, an inquiry or not. The last thing that we want over and above what we are seeing is for political parties to order investigations."

Democracy Watch weighs in

Opposition MPs are not the only ones that want to get to the bottom of the federal government's entanglement with WE Charity. 

The democratic reform advocacy group Democracy Watch is looking for three investigations of its own. It has written to the RCMP asking for it to look into whether the prime minister violated the Criminal Code in his dealings with the charity and has asked Dion's office to look into whether Trudeau or anyone operating on his behalf — such as his chief of staff, Katie Telford — tried to influence the public service to undertake the contract with WE Charity.

Democracy Watch also wants the ethics watchdog to investigate Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who has ties to WE Charity through his family.

A spokesperson for Dion said that all requests for investigations are being considered and a decision will be made later this week.

Trudeau is being investigated under subsection 6(1) of the Conflict of Interest Act, which prohibits public office holders from making decisions that further their own private interests or the interests of another person.

Trudeau also is being investigated under sections 7 and 21 of the Act, which deal with giving someone preferential treatment and failing to recuse from a conflict of interest.

Duty to recuse

The prime minister has publicly apologized already for failing to recuse himself from cabinet discussions on WE Charity. Dawson said it would be difficult for her successor "not to find that he contravened section 21" of the Act.

"It would be pretty hard to backtrack from that statement, I think," Dawson said. "When he says he failed to recuse, recusal — it's one of the requirements, one of the provisions of the Act, if there's a conflict of interest. It suggests that there's also a conflict of interest somewhere in there."

The WE Charity was started by human rights advocates Marc and Craig Kielburger in 1995. Last month, Trudeau announced that it would administer the Canada Student Service Grant, which will provide eligible students with up to $5,000.

The grants are intended to help students cover the cost of post-secondary education in the fall. The amount of the grant depends on how much time students spend doing volunteer work.

Shortly after it was announced that We Charity would be running the program, the Liberal government came under fire from opposition parties and some people in the charitable sector.

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