How Justin Trudeau's latest ethics scandal could spell the end of his career

First there was the secretive trip to the Bahamas in 2016 when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his family rode in a helicopter owned by the Aga Khan, the billionaire and Ismaili Muslim spiritual leader whose organization has received hundreds of millions of dollars in Canadian federal grants to advance its work overseas.

Then, some three years later, the Trudeau government was found to have pressured then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to spare SNC Lavalin, one of Canada's largest engineering companies, from prosecution for bribing Libyan officials in return for lucrative government contracts between 2001 and 2011.

After the Canadian ethics commissioner said Trudeau had violated federal conflict of interest rules, he said, "I assume responsibility for everything that happened in my office". He added, "We recognize the way this happened shouldn't have happened", but said his government was acting in the interest of the national economy.

Ultimately, Trudeau lost two star female cabinet ministers (they resigned) — including the first indigenous woman to become minister of justice — and the scandal almost cost his Liberal Party's hold on power.

Now the charismatic G7 leader has a different problem on his hands. It not only threatens to deal a fatal blow to the once impenetrable Trudeau brand, it also casts unwelcome scrutiny on his immediate family and on an international charity juggernaut with links to Bill Clinton, Oprah Winfrey and several other well-known celebrities and leaders.

The latest imbroglio is related to the government contract handed to the WE Charity to run a $660 million program for students unable to find summer work due to Covid-19.

Despite the fact that the charity paid Trudeau's family members for speaking engagements, Trudeau never thought to recuse himself from the cabinet decision on the contract. The federal ethics commissioner will also investigate Finance Minister Bill Morneau's involvement in the decision, since his daughter currently works for the charity. Since the revelations, Trudeau and his finance minister have both publicly apologized for not removing themselves from cabinet conversations regarding WE. On Thursday, Bardish Chagger, the minister of diversity and inclusion and youth, revealed that WE could have received a maximum of about $32 million for its role in administering the program.

This controversy comes just as Trudeau, thanks to a savvy response to the Covid-19 epidemic that prioritized science over politics, began to recover the political capital that could regain his majority if an election were called.

Pollster Shachi Kurl told me Trudeau's handling of the pandemic accounts for about a 20-point increase in his approval ratings but has "not restored him to his original glory".

"It only took the worst-ever pandemic to hit Canada to help restore his brand", she said.

His latest apparent lapse in judgment means Trudeau may add one more ethics violation to the two he has already earned from the Bahamas trip and SNC Lavalin scandal.

It's not me but we

Trudeau has claimed it was the public service that recommended WE as the only charity in Canada able to manage the multimillion dollar contract aimed at giving students paid summer volunteer placements.

As the controversy deepens, the federal contract with WE was canceled in a "mutually agreed" upon decision and it is unclear when the federal bureaucrats now in charge of the program will be in a position to disburse the grant money to students.

But the ugly fact remains that a charity that paid more than $200,000 to immediate members of the Trudeau family appears to have benefited from the intimate connections with the prime minister. (Prominent figures in Trudeau's inner circle have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for the charity.) Initially, WE said Margaret Trudeau was "never paid an honorarium" to appear at their events.

On Wednesday, Canada's National Post reported that the government gave WE $869,000 when Trudeau asked the charity to host a 2017 Canada Day weekend event that featured his mother, Margaret Trudeau. The newspaper reported that WE paid her an average of $8,000 per appearance (WE did not confirm or deny that she was paid for this specific event).

This week, the charity announced it was launching a restructuring and organizational review after making "important decisions to refocus our mission".

Parliamentary committee probes commenced Thursday and will continue into next week. On Thursday, it was revealed that WE stood to gain more than double the amount the federal government initially said it would receive for administering the program, and testimony raised questions about the extent of the charity's interactions with the government around the time the program was announced.

WE was founded by brothers Marc and Craig Kielburger, two "social entrepreneurs" who launched the charity to alleviate poverty internationally and create learning programs for children in the US, UK and Canada. The two are listed as best-selling authors with 20 books between them, many of which focus on self-help and their charities.

Déjà vu

This latest controversy surrounding Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, recalls other missteps and transgressions, including wearing brownface at a party in his younger years and embarrassing the country during a state visit to India in February 2018 when the entire family overdid it with traditional dress. To make matters worse, a man convicted of attempted murder was invited to the Canadian High Commission, where he was photographed with Sophie Trudeau. (A liberal MP later took responsibility for inviting the man and apologized).

And it further solidifies a perception that the Liberals, and especially Trudeau, are politicians like any other — out of touch with ordinary Canadians, especially as millions struggle to recover from the economic blow of Covid-19. It threatens to undo the goodwill Trudeau received from solid measures taken in the crisis, such as early lockdowns, closing the Canada-US border and effective public health communication — much of it delivered by Trudeau himself from a podium in front of a government guest house. All that contributed to sparing Canada the shockingly huge Covid-19 case numbers seen south of the border.

'Sunny' days over?

Trudeau came into office in 2015 with a stunning majority declaring he would be above reproach on ethics. In a widely quoted victory speech, he promised Canadians a "sunny ways" image of "real change". And yet he quickly became the first Prime Minister ever to break the ethics statute.

The question is, after this third and entirely avoidable ethics lapse, whether his "sunny ways" reputation is tarnished for good. Said former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson, who ruled that Trudeau was guilty of violating the ethics statures for the Aga Khan holiday: "One doesn't continue to do the same thing twice. There seems to be a little bit of a blind spot or something there".

Ottawa-based political consultant Yaroslav Baran told me, "For someone so conscious of appearances, Mr. Trudeau sure seems pretty unconscious of appearances".

There are also signs that the decline of Trudeau — who came into office promising a more engaged Canada on the world stage is having a knock-on effect on Canada's international standing. I attribute Canada's defeat in the race for a UN Security Council seat to other world leaders figuring out there's a disturbing gap between what Trudeau pledges on such issues as climate change and peacekeeping commitments and what he is actually prepared to deliver.

While it may be too early to pen Trudeau's political obituary — the opposition Conservative Party is in the midst of a leadership race and none of the candidates exude star power — a weary Liberal caucus, sensing their leader has become a liability and fearing the prospect of defeat in a future election, could pressure their leader to step aside, at least temporarily.

Hopefully, in the free time that will give him for inner reflection, Trudeau will come to realize that when you are forced to say "sorry" too many times, people will have a hard time placing their trust in you at the next visit to the ballot box.

Michael Bociurkiw is a global affairs analyst, a former spokesman for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and host of the podcast Global Impact. He is currently based in British Columbia, Canada. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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