Please support democracy

Without your support, Democracy Watch can't win key changes to stop governments and big businesses from abusing their power and hurting you and your family. Please click here to support democracy now

Democracy Watch filed complaint with Ethics Commissioner about Aga Khan gifts to PM Trudeau and Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan, and Cabinet giving Ethics Commissioner 6-month contract in December

Ethics Commissioner’s 2011 gifts guideline says gifts from friends to Cabinet ministers prohibited if friend has dealings with the federal government, as Aga Khan does, and MPs Code says no gifts that might influence, even from friends

Conservative Party Interim Leader Rona Ambrose broke same rule as O’Regan by accepting gift of yacht trip from registered lobbyist Murray Edwards

Cabinet gave gift of $100,000 contract to Ethics Commissioner Dawson in December, so she is in a financial conflict of interest and must delegate ruling on all complaints about Trudeau Cabinet to a provincial ethics commissioner, even though she has, finally, disclosed that she is not applying for another seven-year term

Wednesday, February 8th, 2017

OTTAWA –Democracy Watch sent a letter last week to federal Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson calling for a ruling that Prime Minister Trudeau violated the Conflict of Interest Act (COIA), and he and Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan violated the Conflict of Interest Code for MPs (MP Code), when they accepted the gifts of a holiday trip and helicopter ride from the Aga Khan because he is lobbying the government through his foundation.

Democracy Watch also called for a ruling that Conservative Party Interim Leader Rona Ambrose violated the same rule in the MP Code as O’Regan by accepting the gift of a trip from Murray Edwards who is registered to lobby the federal government.

Democracy Watch’s letter also calls on Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson to recuse herself from ruling on issues concerning the Liberal Cabinet because the Cabinet gave her the gift of a $100,000, six-month contract in mid-December.

The letter also calls for a ruling (that the Ethics Commissioner obviously can’t make) that Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet violated sections 4 and 6 of the Conflict of Interest Act when they gave the contract to the Ethics Commissioner, and a similar contract to the Commissioner of Lobbying, in December at the same time both commissioner offices were investigating complaints that the Prime Minister and/or ministers have violated the Conflict of Interest Act or had a relationship with a lobbyist that violates the Lobbyists’ Code of Conduct.

Ethics Commissioner Dawson’s office has claimed that the contract does not create a conflict of interest for her because under subsection 81(1) of the Parliament of Canada Act, opposition party leaders are consulted on the appointment of the Ethics Commissioner. However, under subsection 82(2) of that Act, the Cabinet is not required to consult opposition party leaders before appointing anyone to a six-month term like the one the Ethics Commissioner is currently serving, and in any case Cabinet makes the final appointment decision.

“It would be outrageous if someone filed a lawsuit against Prime Minister Trudeau and he chose the judge to rule on the lawsuit and handed the judge a six-month contract worth $100,000, and it is equally outrageous that people have filed ethics complaints against the Prime Minister and he chose and handed a six-month, $100,000 contract to the Ethics Commissioner who will judge and rule on those complaints,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch.

“It’s a conflict of interest and violation of the federal ethics law for Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet to choose their own ethics and lobbying watchdogs, especially when they are being investigated by those watchdogs, and receiving a valuable contract from the Cabinet puts those watchdogs in a conflict of interest that undermines their investigations,” said Conacher.

Another reason not to have Ethics Commissioner Dawson rule on the complaints is her negligently weak enforcement record since 2007 since 2007 and lack of accountability (See Backgrounder below for details). Democracy Watch and the nation-wide Government Ethics Coalition continue to call for key changes to strengthen federal political ethics rules and the enforcement system (See Backgrounder below for details).

Concerning the trip gifts, the Ethics Commissioner stated in her July 2011 Guideline on Gifts that under section 11 of the COIA that Cabinet ministers and senior government officials are prohibited from accepting even a small gift if it can possibly be reasonably viewed as given to influence the minister or official (see section 2 of the Guideline), and that gifts from friends are prohibited if the friend has dealings with the government (see section 3 of the Guideline).

In several guidelines on gifts to MPs, the Ethics Commissioner has also made it clear that MPs are prohibited under section 14 of the MP Code from accepting even a small gift if it can possibly be reasonably viewed as given to influence the MP. There is no exemption in section 14 for gifts from friends.

The Aga Khan’s foundation Aga Khan Foundation Canada (AKFC) is registered to lobby the federal government, and as of October 14, 2016 Murray Edwards was a registered lobbyist for Canadian Natural Resources Limited (CNRL). Both the AKFC and CNRL are registered to lobby the Prime Minister’s Office and the House of Commons.

Even if the Aga Khan and AKFC and Murray Edwards and CNRL have not actually lobbied the Prime Minister, MP O’Regan or MP Ambrose, the ruling should still be that the gifts can possibly be reasonably viewed as given to influence the politicians because AKFC and CNRL are lobbying the government and the House of Commons and are, therefore, seeking to influence politicians’ decisions.

“Based on the standards set out in guidelines the Ethics Commissioner’s has issued, Prime Minister Trudeau violated the federal ethics law by accepting the trip gift from the Aga Khan, even if they are friends, because the Aga Khan is lobbying the federal government through his foundation,” said Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch. “MPs are not also allowed to accept a gift, even a gift from friends, if it could possibly be reasonably viewed as given to influence them, and based on this standard Liberal MP Seamus O’Regan violated the MP Code by accepting the gift of the trip from the Aga Khan, as did Prime Minister Trudeau when he was an MP in December 2014, and Conservative MP Rona Ambrose also violated the MP Code by accepting the gift of the trip from Murray Edwards who is registered to lobby the federal government for Canadian Natural Resources Limited.”

Democracy Watch proposes that the solution is to have a fully independent commission whose members are approved by all federal party leaders do a public, non-partisan merit-based search for the next Ethics Commissioner and Commissioner of Lobbying, and to require the Trudeau Cabinet to choose from a short-list of candidates that the commission nominates, with approval still by the House of Commons.

To stop patronage and cronyism, and the appointment of weak government watchdogs and law enforcement officers, Democracy Watch has called for this change to the process for all Cabinet appointments in its Stop Bad Government Appointments Campaign. Ontario uses this appointment system to appoint provincial judges, and it is considered to be a world-leading process.

– 30 –

Duff Conacher, Co-founder of Democracy Watch
Tel: (613) 241-5179
Cell: 416-546-3443
[email protected]

Democracy Watch’s Government Ethics Campaign


1. Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson’s weak enforcement record

Federal Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has had a very weak enforcement record since 2007, including (as of June 2015) making 149 secret rulings, issuing only 25 public rulings, and letting 75 (94%) of people who clearly violated ethics rules off the hook.

In addition to refusing to investigate and rule on many situations involving clear violations of federal ethics rules and/or letting people off with a warning (as detailed in the above paragraph), Ethics Commissioner Dawson has also greatly undermined various sections of the Conflict of Interest Act (COIA) in past rulings by creating loopholes in the COIA that do not exist – such as:

  1. her April 29, 2010 “Cheques Report” ruling claiming that political parties are not “persons” under the COIA and therefore it was fine for Conservative MPs and Cabinet ministers to hand out government cheques with the Conservative Party logo on them;
  2. her May 13, 2010 “Raitt Report” ruling that it was fine for two lobbyists who were lobbying Minister Lisa Raitt to help raise thousands of dollars for her riding association because, she claimed, that only helped the association not her, and;
  3. her baseless decision that the COIA only applies to financial interests despite the fact that the COIA’s section 2 definition of “private interest” does not in any way even suggest that the definition of “private interest” is restricted to only financial interests.
  4. her December 2016 ruling that it was fine for Health Minister Jane Philpott to use the driving service company of one of her former campaign volunteers because it was the only such company Minister Philpott claimed she knew about (a ruling that creates a loophole allowing any Minister or other senior government officlal to use the same invalid excuse Minister Philpott used to give contracts to their friends or other party loyalists).

Because of section 66 added to the then-new Conflict of Interest Act by the Conservatives in 2006, the Ethics Commissioner’s rulings cannot be challenged in court if she has factual or legal errors in her rulings. If this section had not been added to the Act, Democracy Watch would have challenged several of Commissioner Dawson’s rulings since 2007 in court.

Democracy Watch is currently challenging Ethics Commissioner Dawson’s use of conflict-of-interest screens in court on the basis that the screens are unlawful.

2. Federal ethics law and codes missing key rules and accountability measures

The Conservatives broke a 2006 election promise (one of their many broken accountability promises) to include key ethics rules in the new Conflict of Interest Act prohibiting dishonesty and being in even an appearance of a conflict of interest. Prime Minister Harper instead put those rules in his Accountable Government code for ministers and other senior officials so he could ignore the rules (as he did until the Conservatives were defeated in the 2015 election – see especially rules in Annex A, Part 1 of the code).

The Liberals made no promises in their 2015 election platform to close the huge loopholes in the huge loopholes in the Conflict of Interest Act (and they also made no promises to close the huge loopholes in the Lobbying Act or the Public Servants Disclosure Protection Act). Instead, Prime Minister Trudeau re-named and re-issued the Accountability Government code as his Open and Accountable Government code. He has ignored the rules in his code just like Prime Minister Harper did.