The Trudeau Foundation paid for a Liberal MP’s trip to London, England, to speak at one of its conferences last year, which critics say creates a conflict of interest for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government.
The foundation spent $2,760.12 to send Liberal MP Arif Virani, parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Canadian Heritage, to the conference from Feb. 29 to March 1, 2016. This was the first time in its 16-year history that the foundation, an educational charity established in memory of Justin Trudeau’s late father, Pierre Trudeau, had sponsored the travel of a sitting Member of Parliament.
“You’d have to be completely blind not to see what an obvious conflict of interest this is; how it puts the entire foundation and those who donate to it under suspicion because it looks like what it is, which is a way to gain influence with the Trudeau cabinet without having to report it to Elections Canada,” said NDP ethics critic Nathan Cullen.
The foundation’s perceived closeness with the Trudeau government has been a source of controversy in recent months. In December, the National Post reported that following Justin Trudeau’s election as Liberal leader, foreign donations to the foundation increased 10-fold and overall donations increased four-fold.
Virani, a human rights advocate who came to Canada as a refugee, said he was invited to the conference based on his background, not his party affiliation.
“I was honoured to be asked by the Trudeau Foundation to speak at their 2016 Conference on Diversity, Pluralism and the Future of Citizenship,” said Virani, the MP for the Toronto riding of Parkdale-High Park. Virani said he obtained approval from the ethics commissioner’s office before agreeing to attend.
In November, the prime minister said there was a “tremendous separation” between himself and the Trudeau Foundation. The prime minister’s brother Alexandre sits on the board of the foundation, which received $125 million in 2002 from the Liberal government of Jean Chrétien.
Asked why a Liberal MP’s travel was sponsored if a tremendous separation exists, Trudeau’s press secretary, Andrée-Lyne Hallé, said: “Following his election as leader of the Liberal party, the prime minister withdrew his involvement in the affairs of the foundation.” Justin Trudeau was elected Liberal leader in April 2013. He stepped down from the foundation over a year and a half later, in December 2014.
Members of Parliament are required to report travel costing over $200 that is paid for by an outside group to the ethics commissioner. The National Post reviewed records of MPs’ sponsored travel from 2004-2016. Records from before 2004 cannot be removed from the House of Commons but Jeremy LeBlanc, the principal clerk of journals at the House of Commons, checked the records from 2001-2003 and said there was no travel sponsored by the Trudeau Foundation during that period.
In an emailed statement, the foundation’s executive director, Élise Comtois, said the charity always covers the cost of travel and accommodation for speakers at its events. While this is the first time the foundation has covered travel for a sitting MP, Comtois noted the foundation often invites politicians from various parties to speak, including Conservative MP Michael Chong in 2015, NDP MP Linda Duncan in 2012 and Green Party leader Elizabeth May in 2011.
“We seek to provide a diversity of opinions and perspectives at all of our events given the foundation’s core mission,” Comtois said. “When travel is involved we offer to cover travel and accommodation costs within reason.”
John Brassard, Conservative deputy ethics critic, said Virani could have used government resources to pay for his trip.
“The prime minister stood up in the House of Commons and said he’s got nothing to do with the Trudeau Foundation, that it’s an arms-length body, it’s not affiliated with government at all. Listen, Mr. Virani is a parliamentary secretary. If he needed to go to this conference so badly, he didn’t need the Trudeau Foundation to pay for it.”
A letter sent to Virani by the foundation indicates it spent $852.63 on airfare, $385.44 on meals, $1,143.60 on hospitality and $378.45 on transportation (taxis). The letter includes a list of directors of the Trudeau Foundation. At the bottom of that list is the prime minister’s brother, Alexandre Trudeau.
National Post by Zane Schwartz and Claire Brownell, National Post Staff
March 28th 2017