Trudeau defends Khadr payment, pot legalization and role of ethics commissioner in N.S. town hall

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicks off his town hall tour in Nova Scotia, taking questions that ranged from pot legalization to funding for post-secondary education. But he could not escape his government's payout to Omar Khadr or his own ethical violations.

'If I had to do it all again I would have worked with the commissioner from the outset'

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau fields a question at a town hall meeting in Lower Sackville, N.S. on Tuesday. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau kicked off his town hall tour in Nova Scotia on Tuesday, taking questions that ranged from pot legalization to funding for post-secondary education. But he could not escape his government's payout to Omar Khadr or his own ethical violations. 

One of the more direct questions during the event in Lower Sackville, N.S., came from a young woman who asked about Trudeau's recent censure by Mary Dawson, the parliamentary ethics commissioner, who found he violated some provisions of the Conflict of Interest Act when he vacationed on a private island owned by the Aga Khan.

"I am just curious about how you feel about being the first prime minister ever found guilty of a federal crime," a young woman asked.

"If he is a longtime family friend of yours, since you've known [him] since [he was] a kid, you're probably not supposed to be giving money to his foundation. And if he is a lobbyist, and you are giving money to his foundation, then you probably shouldn't be taking bribes from him," she added.

Trudeau responded that his recent violations were evidence that "our system works" but went on to call the Aga Khan "a longtime family friend" despite Dawson's ruling that there was no evidence to support that claim.

"If I had to do it all again I would have worked with the commissioner from the outset, even though this was a friend, and we would have followed the recommendations that were given no matter what they were," he said.

Trudeau was asked about his recent censure for spending a Christmas vacation on the Aga Khan's private island. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

At one point a young girl stood to ask Trudeau a curious two-part question:

"Why does it take so long to fax papers and why do you think it's OK to give $10.5 million to a person that killed a soldier?"

Trudeau waved away the fax question, but jumped on the reference to Khadr, saying that he too was upset about the payment but was compelled to make it because Khadr's rights had been violated.

"You should be [upset], you have every right to be," he said. "We paid money that could have gone to schools, could have gone to investing in any number of worthy causes."

'Marijuana is problematic'

Trudeau was also forced to defend his government's decision to legalize marijuana when a health-care worker asked why, in light of evidence that cannabis is dangerous to developing minds, he was proceeding with legalization.

"This may surprise you, but I agree," Trudeau said. "I agree that marijuana is problematic for the developing brain, that we need to keep it out of the hands of our young people.

"However it's not working. Right now the current system we have means… there's already marijuana in our high schools."

The prime minister went on to say that there was no black market for beer because alcohol is legal, regulated and the profits from the industry were not ending up in the hands of criminals.

William Duff, 31, a serving member in the navy who has been stricken with ALS, asked why he was allowed to choose an assisted death but not allowed to try experimental treatments that could potentially prolong his life.

Trudeau explained the process for approving drugs is one in which politicians are not involved because of the technical and scientific processes required to make sure drugs and treatments are safe for Canadians.

William Duff asked why he was being given the choice of dying today or suffering tomorrow. (Mark Crosby/CBC)

"I wish I could give you the kind of clear determined answer that I know you want, but I am not up on all the latest experimental treatments," Trudeau said.

The prime minister, however, offered some support, committing to have a conversation with Science Minister Kirsty Duncan and Health Minister Ginette Petitpas Taylor to make sure everything possible is being done for the sailor.

Meeting with Boyle

Earlier in the day, Trudeau told a Halifax radio station he followed the advice of his security and intelligence officials in agreeing to meet with former hostage Joshua Boyle and his family in his Parliament Hill office.

"We make sure that we follow all the advice that our security professionals and intelligence agencies give us and that's exactly what we did in this case," Trudeau said on News 95.7.

Less than two weeks after the meeting, Boyle was arrested and charged with more than a dozen criminal offences, including sexual assault, assault and uttering threats. Some of the details of the charges are covered by a publication ban.

Joshua Boyle's family posted this photo with Trudeau on Twitter on Dec. 19, 2017. (@boylesvsworld/Twitter)

"We've been very, very active on consular cases," Trudeau told the radio station. "The engagement that my office has directly with those cases led me to meet with a number of people who've been released." 

The prime minister travels next to Hamilton for another town hall on Wednesday before holding another Thursday in London, Ont., where the federal cabinet is holding its winter retreat. Trudeau will then take a break before holding another meeting in Quebec City on Jan. 18.

Later in the month, Trudeau heads to Winnipeg and Edmonton.