The last time he visited Canada, back in September, His Highness the Aga Khan received yet another accolade: the inaugural Adrienne Clarkson Prize for Global Citizenship. Awarded by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship (a charity co-founded by the former Governor-General and her husband, the philosopher and novelist John Ralston Saul), the prize recognizes an individual “who has, through thought and dialogue, encouraged approaches and strategies that strive to remove barriers, change attitudes, and reinforce the principles of tolerance and respect.”
The Aga Khan—spiritual leader of the world’s 15 million Shia Ismaili Muslims, ultra-wealthy philanthropist, lifelong promoter of peace and pluralism—was a worthy first choice, to say the least. A champion of multiculturalism who never misses a chance to praise Canada’s commitment to diversity (“a model for the world,” as he often says), the 80-year-old Aga Khan is also the driving force behind one of the world’s most respected development charities. To borrow a line from Clarkson’s award-ceremony speech, he is “a light in much of the world’s conflicting darkness.”
His Highness accepted his prize at Toronto’s Koerner Hall, packed to capacity, on Sept. 21. Kathleen Wynne, Ontario’s Premier, was in the crowd. So were Mayor John Tory and the First Lady of Iceland, Ottawa-born Eliza Reid.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was unable to attend. But he did make sure to record a video message for his “dear friend” and “mentor:”
“I often say that Canada is stronger not in spite of its differences, but because of them,” the Prime Minister said into the camera, four Canadian flags behind him. “Well, for half a century, the Aga Khan has shown that about the world. Thank you, Your Highness. Canada and the world are stronger and richer because of your commitment to diversity and to finding common ground, to helping those most vulnerable, and to believing in a better, closer, more inclusive world. Merci, mon ami.”
Six months later, that dear friendship has been thrust under the political microscope amid revelations that Trudeau and his family spent part of their Christmas holiday vacationing at the Aga Khan’s private island in the Bahamas—and using the billionaire’s personal helicopter to get there, an apparent violation of both federal law and the very rules the prime minister issued to his new Liberal Cabinet after winning the 2015 election. On Monday, news broke that Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson has launched a second investigation into Trudeau’s controversial vacation: a probe under the Conflict of Interest Code, a set of guidelines that govern the behavior of all Members of Parliament (included in the code is an expectation that MPs not “accept any gift or benefit connected with their position that might reasonably be seen to compromise their personal judgment or integrity”).
Dawson was already investigating the possibility that Trudeau’s trip violated the Conflict of Interest Act, specifically the section that states public office holders can only fly on private aircraft under “exceptional circumstances” or if the trip is approved in advance by the Commissioner. Her initial investigation is also exploring whether it was even appropriate for the PM to accept a free luxury holiday from a man whose Ottawa-based charity—a registered lobbyist, no less—has received hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding. In last year’s budget, Trudeau’s first, the Liberals committed $55 million to the Aga Khan Foundation Canada for aid work in Afghanistan.
Dawson has not indicated how long her dual investigations could last. But on paper, the potential sanctions are minimal. A confirmed breach of the Act carries a maximum $500 fine, while the heftiest punishment under the Code is a public rebuke. It is the potential political damage, however, that looms largest for Trudeau. He is the first Prime Minister to have his travel scrutinized by the ethics commissioner.
If his few public statements are any indication, Trudeau is telling Dawson’s office what he’s told Canadians: that it was a private vacation; that the holiday had nothing to do with official government business; that the Aga Khan has been a dear family friend for decades.
On that last point, there may be no better proof than the PM’s tribute video.