Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reaction to the federal ethics watchdog’s finding that he broke conflict of interest rules by vacationing on a private Bahamian island was a delicate balance of accepting formal responsibility while deflecting real blame.
Federal ethics commissioner Mary Dawson issued a report on Trudeau’s Christmas holiday last year on the Aga Khan’s island, concluding that he violated rules against accepting gifts that might reasonably be seen as influencing government decisions.
But Dawson’s reasoning was complicated by the fact that the federal code would have allowed Trudeau to accept the same gifts from a friend. She concluded that even though the Aga Khan was a friend of Trudeau’s father, the late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, there didn’t seem to have been enough continuing contact to amount to an active friendship between Justin Trudeau and the billionaire hereditary leader of the world’s Ismaili Muslims.
Rejection of that subjective assessment of what counts as a friendship ran through Trudeau’s response to Dawson’s ruling, when he faced reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons today. Here are three key quotes that sum up his stance and capture his tone:
In Trudeau’s version, this wasn’t about a vacation more luxurious than most Canadians can imagine; it was about quality family time. “The Aga Khan is someone who has been a longtime friend of my family’s, a friend of mine, a friend to Canada as well. And for me to look for a place to have a quiet vacation, where I can have quality family time, is something we all look for with our families.”
Beyond enjoying the Aga Khan’s hospitality, Trudeau describes his host as a sort of worldly interlocutor, but not a man engaged on Canadian files. “We talked about global, general issues. He’s a friend that I’ve talked a lot with about the international context, the Syrian situation, the Ismaili community, the general Muslim community. We’ve had some very long conversations about that. But we didn’t talk about specific Canadian policy issues.”
Trudeau wouldn’t accept Dawson’s conclusion that he and the Aga Khan aren’t friends. And no sanctions flow from her report. Still, he says it matters. “We need to make sure that the office of the prime minister is without reproach. And, in the future, including on family friends and personal family trips, we will be proactively working with the office of commissioner to ensure there is no conflict of interest, no appearance of conflict of interest.”
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