MPs weigh in on Justin Trudeau charging speaking fees

The New Brunswick charity that asked Liberal leader Justin Trudeau to return a speaking fee eight months after he appeared at a fundraiser has sparked a debate among MPs about the propriety of accepting money for what some say MPs should do for free.

Questions swirl around N.B. charity that asked Liberal leader to return money

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau says he'll compensate any charitable groups that feel they didn't get their money's worth after paying him to speak at fundraising events. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

The New Brunswick charity that asked Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau to return a speaking fee after he appeared at a fundraiser has sparked a debate among MPs about the propriety of accepting money for what some of them say MPs should do for free.

NDP MP Charlie Angus told reporters outside the House of Commons Monday, "I was personally absolutely shocked that this was allowable." He said MPs are regularly asked to speak at schools or charitable events, but he's never heard of anyone  charging for the service.

Angus continued that he does know of MPs who are doctors or nurses who work the occasional shift in hospital emergency departments to keep up their licence, but added, "What we don't make allowances for is people skipping votes, having terrible attendance records and running a side business."

The Grace Foundation, a charity that supports a licensed nursing home in Saint John, says it lost money at an event a year ago where Trudeau was asked to speak and charged a fee of $20,000.

The fact that Trudeau would charge for speaking at a charitable fundraising event was brought up by Conservative MP Jason Kenney in question period on Friday. As well, a letter from a director on the Grace Foundation board, written to Trudeau in March asking him to consider returning his fee, was circulated to the media Friday by the Prime Minister's Office.

Over the weekend, Trudeau issued a statement saying he would either return fees or help resolve any financial problems that arose from the time he was conducting speaking engagements while he was an MP.

MPs take sides

On Monday morning, New Brunswick Conservative MP Rob Moore issued a statement indicating Trudeau's gesture is not enough.

The statement, titled "MP Rob Moore doubts sincerity of Justin Trudeau's response to Canadian charities," said, "Justin Trudeau ignored the Grace Foundation pleas for repayment for four months, and only when embarrassed in the media has he now claimed he will 'make it right.' Canadians simply don't buy it."

A spokesperson from the Prime Minister's Office said the Grace Foundation is based in Moore's Fundy Royal riding, however all listed addresses for the charity are in neighbouring Saint John, which is represented by Conservative Rodney Weston.

Weston's parliamentary office said Tuesday Moore took the lead on this issue because Moore's constituents also are served by the Grace Foundation, and because Moore was the MP who first became aware of the problem when one of his constituents brought it to his attention.

Moore, in an interview Monday, said he found out about the letter a board member wrote to Trudeau asking for a refund on Wednesday of last week. The letter was given to him by a constituent, Judith Baxter.

Baxter is on the Grace Foundation's board, although she didn't write the letter. Her husband, Glen Baxter, is on the executive of Moore's Conservative riding association.

On CBC News Network's Power & Politics Monday, Moore said there were likely Liberals and New Democrats on the Grace Foundation board as well, and "just because one of the members is a Conservative" doesn't mean there is a conspiracy.

Moore condemned Trudeau for billing speaker's fees to charities, saying, "We look at the list of some of these charities, the whole business model seems to be built first around Justin Trudeau getting a paycheque." However, he said the only charity he's heard from is the Grace Foundation.

Dominic Leblanc, a Liberal MP and childhood friend of Trudeau's, told reporters Monday, "I think he's [Trudeau] raised the bar on transparency." LeBlanc pointed out, "He's gone further disclosing his parliamentary income than probably any other MP."

When he decided to run for the Liberal leadership, Trudeau stopped his paid public speaking engagements and released details about his inheritance from his father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, and the amount of money he made from public speaking both before and after he was elected MP for the Montreal riding of Papineau

Some charities don't want Trudeau to return his fee

In question period Monday, Heritage Minister James Moore accused Trudeau of "leading with his chin," when Trudeau asked, as he has in previous days, for a copy of the $90,000 cheque the prime minister's former top aide wrote to Senator Mike Duffy so that Duffy could repay improperly claimed expenses billed to the Senate.

The minister suggested Trudeau show the House "the money he took from charity," listing charities that had paid Trudeau to speak at events. He mentioned a $20,000 payment from the Canadian Mental Health Association,  $7,500 from the Nova Scotia Nature Trust and $10,000 from the Children of Hope.

However, the Nova Scotia Nature Trust event took place in 2006, before Trudeau ran for office, and the charity told CBC News it doesn't want any money returned. A spokesperson at the Children of Hope said the organization has not yet decided if it wants a refund.

The Prime Minister's Office also provided CBC News with a list of institutions that hired Trudeau as a keynote speaker: Georgian College, the University of Guelph and a Municipality of Chatham-Kent business dinner. None of these are charities, but the PMO pointed out they are all funded by taxpayers. The speaking engagements took place before Trudeau was an MP.

Speaking to reporters after question period Monday, Trudeau said, "Every single group of the 17 groups that I spoke to as an MP, we are getting in touch with this week to find out if they feel like they didn't get their money's worth ... I will be happy to pay them back personally if they are dissatisfied." 

Trudeau earned $277,000 in speaking fees at those 17 engagements.

Three of them have already said they don't want any money returned from Trudeau: the London Health Sciences Centre ($10,000), the Ontario Library Association ($10,000) and Saskatoon Literacy for Life ($20,000), although the latter group said later it would be open to a refund if Trudeau offered.

As for the Grace Foundation, Trudeau said, "I'm glad to look at compensating them either by writing them a cheque or by offering to do a bigger more successful fundraiser for free." 

Ceci Flanagan-Snow, who volunteered to photograph the Grace Foundation event, said, "He [Trudeau] was hired and paid to perform a service. And to me that's fine. That was the rate they negotiated. They paid it. And to come back a year later and say our event was unsuccessful and therefore we should have our money back ... I totally disagree."

She told CBC News in an interview that Trudeau's speaking style was "extremely charismatic." Flanagan-Snow, who said she is not a member of any political party, continued that she thought the date — June 27 — when people are on holidays or planning to go on vacation may have contributed to the low turnout. 

So far, no one from the board of the Grace Foundation has spoken publicly about the request to Trudeau for reimbursement of his speaking fee. On Monday, a spokesperson for the board told CBC News a special meeting will be convened sometime this week, once all board members can be reached, in order to formulate a response.


  • This story has been edited from an earlier version that incorrectly stated, based on information provided by the Prime Minister's Office, that the Grace Foundation was located in Conservative MP Rob Moore's Fundy Royal riding. In fact, the charity is located in Saint John, represented by Conservative MP Rodney Weston.
    Jun 18, 2013 12:33 PM ET