Backgrounder on 4 Errors Made by federal Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion in his ruling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s participation in approving the WE Charity grant in spring 2020
(November 10, 2021)
Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion’s May 2021 ruling on Prime Minister Trudeau’s participation in the WE Charity grant approval process made four key errors in letting Trudeau off even though Trudeau clearly violated the federal government ethics law.
The Ethics Commissioner concluded that, because PM Trudeau’s spouse volunteers as an ambassador and champion for WE Charity, including hosting a podcast for it, and his mother and brother have been paid large sums to give speeches for the charity, and the PM has also appeared at several WE events, there was “a strong appearance of conflict between the Trudeau family’s relationship with WE and Mr. Trudeau’s duty to make decisions that best serve the public interest.” (paragraphs 248-250).
Trudeau has said he should have recused himself, and Ethics Commissioner Dion says at the end of his ruling that “it is always advisable to recuse oneself and inform the Commissioner promptly when facing an apparent conflict of interest” (paragraph 269). Why? Because it is clearly improper to take part in a decision when in an apparent conflict.
- Failure to rule that Trudeau had a real conflict of interest
However, the Ethics Commissioner’s ruling first claims, wrongly, that Trudeau was not in a real or potential conflict of interest. Democracy Watch’s position is that, because of the extensive, direct and ongoing family ties between the Trudeau family and WE, especially the fact that his spouse is a WE ambassador and podcaster, the PM was clearly in a potential conflict of interest when WE Charity began engaging with the government about the grant, and then in a real conflict of interest as soon as WE Charity engaged with Cabinet and the PMO.
In the Trudeau II Report about the SNC-Lavalin scandal involving the Prime Minister and other top government officials, Commissioner Dion defined “private interests” as including “financial, social or political interests (paragraphs 288 to 292). In his ruling on the WE Charity grant, he concluded that the grant definitely benefited WE’s private interests but ignored the fact that the grant would very likely, by helping WE financially and deepening the relationship between WE and the PM’s government and family, also benefit the social interests of his WE-ambassador spouse and his family members who spoke at WE events, and the PM’s political interests as WE would have continued to promote the PM as it has for more than a decade (paragraphs 233-238 and 243-244).
- Failure to rule that Conflict of Interest Act covers apparent conflicts of interest
Secondly, the Ethics Commissioner’s ruling claims, wrongly, that being in an appearance of a conflict of interest is not a violation of the federal Conflict of Interest Act (CofI Act), and that only being in a real or potential conflict of interest is (paragraphs 252-268).
This part of the ruling is wrong because the purpose of the CofI Act is to prevent all “conflicts of interest” whether real, apparent or potential (subsections 3(b) and (c)), and the Act prohibits federal politicians and government officials from participating in specific decisions like handing out grants and contracts when they are “in a conflict of interest” (sections 4 and 6) which includes any type of conflict of interest, real, apparent or potential (as the Federal Court of Appeal ruled unanimously in 2009 (para. 49)).
- Failure to rule that Trudeau and Keilburger borthers, who head up WE Charity, are friends
Thirdly, the CofI Act prohibits politicians furthering not only their own interests but also “those of his or her relatives or friends or to improperly further another person’s private interests” (sections 4 and 6). As mentioned above, the WE Charity grant could benefit Trudeau and his relatives’ interests. In addition, the Ethics Commissioner ignored evidence that Trudeau and his spouse are friends of the Kielburger brothers who head up WE. Craig Keilburger described Trudeau as a friend in a November 2015 interview with the Ottawa Citizen. At the same time at the WE event where he gave his first speech as Prime Minister, Trudeau describe both Craig and his brother Marc as friends. Given this, and that the ties between the families have only increased since then, again including that Trudeau’s spouse is a WE Ambassador, the Ethics Commissioner was wrong to conclude that that they are not friends (paragraphs 239 to 241 of his ruling).
- Failure to find that Trudeau acted improperly, which is a violation of the Act
Fourthly, Commissioner Dion’s ruling ignores the real meaning of the second part of section 4 of the CofI Act that prohibits taking part in a decision if it offers an opportunity to “improperly further” another person’s or entity’s interests. That is a very broad prohibition, as the Commissioner himself concluded in the Trudeau II Report on the SNC-Lavalin scandal (paragraphs 286 and 296-301). According to the Commissioner, “improper” includes a violation of any of the PM’s Code rules, and that Code’s Annex B rule prohibits the PM and ministers from being in an appearance of conflict of interest.
Again Trudeau has said he should have recused himself, and Ethics Commissioner Dion says at the end of his ruling that “it is always advisable to recuse oneself and inform the Commissioner promptly when facing an apparent conflict of interest” (paragraph 269). Why? Because it is clearly improper to take part in a decision when in an apparent conflict.