Trudeau under renewed attack for Bahamas vacation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under renewed attack in the House of Commons over his vacation on a private Bahamas island, following the revelation that the Aga Khan’s island is legally owned by a company connected to corporation in countries known as offshore tax havens

Explanation about vacation with Aga Khan 'full of holes and contradictions,' says Tom Mulcair

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds during question period in the House of Commons on Tuesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under renewed attack Tuesday in the House of Commons over his vacation on a private Bahamas island, following the revelation that the Aga Khan's island is legally owned by a company with ties to corporations located in countries known to be tax havens.

New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair led off with his questioning about the island's ownership structure.

"The prime minister's explanation of his now infamous vacation is so full of holes and contradictions it is starting to sound like a White House press briefing," he told the House.

"The prime minister broke the law by taking a private helicopter to the island. He defended this by saying that it was simply a family vacation with a family friend along with a few senior Liberals. Now we learn that the island doesn't actually belong to the family friend. So will the prime minister finally own up to this entire mess and admit that he should never have taken that exclusive holiday?"

Mulcair also called on Trudeau to admit that the helicopter used by the Aga Khan was not the only way to get to Bell Island.

Trudeau, however, stuck to his talking points, saying that he was co-operating with Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson's investigation into his vacation.

"This was a personal family vacation with a longtime friend, and I am happy to work with the ethics commissioner to answer any questions she may have."

Murky ownership trail

The exchange came after an investigation by CBC News into Bell Island and the helicopter that carried Trudeau to the tropical retreat over the Christmas holidays found a trail that includes several different companies and four countries known for their favourable tax rules.

A wooden pathway leads to a scenic lookout on Bell Island in the Bahamas. (CBC)

The legal ownership of Bell Island involves a number of shell companies and nominee directors with links to Swiss banking giant Credit Suisse. A title search reveals that the legal owner of Bell Island is Island of Discovery Ltd. The directors of Island of Discovery are two other companies that were mentioned in the Panama Papers database of offshore tax haven documents.

A handwritten notation on the travel expenses for Privy Council technician Brad Cotten's trip indicates a $1,200 US payment for Cotten's accommodation on the island was to be remitted to a fourth company, Lexthree Ltd.

The reasons for the complex corporate structure are unclear, and officials working with the Aga Khan have refused to comment.

Setting up offshore companies is legal and there can be legitimate reasons for using networks of offshore companies with nominee directors.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa a year ago. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

However, experts say it is also the kind of structure often used by those who are trying to hide assets or avoid or evade taxes. While tax avoidance can be legal, evading taxes is not.

Aga Khan in Ottawa

On Tuesday, the Aga Khan was in Ottawa for the opening of the Global Centre for Pluralism, an education and research centre established in part with $30 million from the Canadian government and $35 million from the Aga Khan. Reporters were unable to ask him any questions.

Although Trudeau was less than three kilometres away and has repeatedly described the Aga Khan as a longtime family friend, he was noticeably absent from the ceremony attended by more than 200 people.

Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly, the only member of Trudeau's cabinet to attend, refused to say whether Trudeau had been invited to the opening.

Joly was also tight-lipped when asked about the complex corporate structure surrounding Bell Island.

"This is a subject that is not linked to the government of Canada," she told reporters. "We committed $1 billion to countering tax evasion."

Heat from the opposition

Conservative MP Blaine Calkins said the latest revelation about Bell Island underscore's Trudeau's lack of judgment in deciding to vacation there.

"It was a lack of judgment to spend taxpayers' money to go there in the first place," he said in an interview.

"It was a lack of judgment to not only break the ethical rules and the standards that he set for himself, not only that but the Ethics Act, when it comes to taking a flight on a private helicopter. Now it seems to be just compounding itself and it's a problem."

Calkins said he is concerned that the fallout over Trudeau's vacation and Bell Island could affect funding for the Aga Khan Foundation Canada.

"It would be a real shame, I think … if this friendship that he has is going to affect the future funding for that foundation, which does good work."

Fellow Conservative MP Chris Warkentin waded into the debate during question period, asking Trudeau about his future vacation planning.

"Mr. Speaker, it is that time of the year again when families start making plans for their summer vacations. I am wondering if the prime minister can commit to getting an estimate in advance from the Privy Council Office on how much his summer vacation dreams might cost. I am hoping that he will maybe take that into consideration when he chooses what to do and where to go this time."

Duff Conacher of Democracy Watch, said Trudeau is talking about ethics but not "walking the ethics walk."

"Prime Minister Trudeau and the Liberal cabinet and government officials are not being careful enough in dealing with people who are seeking to influence their decisions, including accepting this gift of a trip from the Aga Khan."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca