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Ethics commissioner starts ‘preliminary review’ of Trudeau’s Aga Khan trip

Review comes as Opposition accuses Trudeau of conflict of interest for going on the private island vacation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in May 2016.

Staff / The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, meets with the Aga Khan on Parliament Hill in Ottawa in May 2016.

The ethics commissioner has started a “preliminary review” of the prime minister’s secret family vacation to the Aga Khan’s private island, as the Opposition continues to cry foul and demand a full scale conflict of interest investigation.

In an email Thursday, a spokesperson from the office of ethics commissioner Mary Dawson confirmed the review had started but would not comment further.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has explained the trip as a family vacation, pointing out this week that he has known the Aga Khan since he was a toddler, and that the Ismaili Muslim leader was a pallbearer at his father’s funeral.

But that hasn’t quelled the calls for an ethics probe into the trip. On Wednesday, Conservative MP Blaine Calkins asked ethics commissioner Mary Dawson to investigate the trip, following a request to do the same earlier this week from former speaker and Tory leadership candidate Andrew Scheer.

After keeping the vacation secret for several days, the Prime Minister’s Office admitted last week that Trudeau spent time during the holidays on the private Bell Island, at the Aga Khan’s invitation. Days later, the PMO then also admitted that Newfoundland MP Seamus O’Regan and his husband joined the Trudeau family on the vacation, along with Liberal Party President Anna Gainey and her husband.

The Aga Khan is the chair of a foundation that has inked more than $300 million in international development contracts with the government since 2004, and is a registered lobbyist that regularly deals with officials from Global Affairs.

The controversy over the island vacation continues as Trudeau embarks on a tour of Ontario communities. The Liberals have come under fire for using public funds for a trip, when the party is asking the public to sign up and provide personal information if they want to attend an event.

On the first stop of the road-trip Thursday, at a restaurant in Manotick, Conservative voter Dave Emery told the Canadian Press that he is not surprised taxpayers are footing the bill for Trudeau’s outreach tour.

“It certainly gives him an advantage in any kind of an election campaign,” said Emery, who comes to the restaurant every Thursday with his wife.

“Is it fair? I guess the Conservatives did it too ... I don’t think he plays as an everyday man. He’s obviously lived a life of luxury.”

Meanwhile, the PMO has not responded to questions from the Star that could clarify details of the trip to the Aga Khan’s island.

Chief among them: How did the PM travel the 120 kilometres from Nassau to the billionaire’s exclusive enclave?

That question is vital because, according to the federal Conflict of Interest Act, the prime minister can’t take a chartered or private aircraft unless he has permission from the ethics commissioner or it’s required in his capacity as a public office holder.

The PMO has said that Trudeau and his family took a government Challenger jet to Nassau, and that the prime minister will reimburse the public for the equivalent cost of a commercial flight, according to protocol. Spokesperson Cameron Ahmad also told the Star that Gainey and O’Regan and their respective spouses were not on the Challenger jet with the Trudeaus.

O’Regan told the National Post this week that he took a private helicopter from Nassau to Bell Island, but it’s unclear how Gainey and Trudeau made the island-to-island trip.

In an emailed statement to the Star, Liberal party media relations manager Marjolaine Provost characterized the trip as a “personal vacation” for Gainey that had no connection with her role as party president. She added that no party matters were discussed with the Aga Khan.

“It is widely known that Mme. Gainey is a long-time personal friend of Mr. Trudeau and his family,” Provost wrote.

Other questions that the PMO has yet to answer include whether officials from the Aga Khan’s foundation in Canada were at the island during the politicians’ stay, or whether there were any of the organization’s registered lobbyists.

In his letter to the ethics commissioner, Conservative MP Calkins refers to a section of the Conflict of Interest Act that allows elected officials to accept gifts from friends. But Calkins argues that it’s not up to Trudeau to decide what his own definition of a “friend” under the act.

Calkins also wrote that, assuming the Aga Khan is a family friend, the prime minister should recuse himself from all official government interactions with the religious leader and his organization in Canada.

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