• Allison Baker

FACT CHECK: Has Trudeau's Government Broken the Most “Ethics and Conflict of Interest Laws”?

MISLEADING. The Conflict of Interest Act came into effect in 2007. So while it is true that the current government has broken this law more than any other, the only one to compare it to is that of Stephen Harper.

In early February, the Conservative Party of Canada shared an attack ad on social media aimed at the current Liberal government. The video, viewed approximately 58,000 times on the Conservatives’ Facebook page, claims that Canada had never seen a government “break so many federal ethics and conflict of interest laws before” Justin Trudeau’s Liberal majority. The narrator then says that the federal ethics commissioner has questioned three cabinet ministers—Bill Morneau, Dominic LeBlanc, and Jane Philpott—and investigated ethical breaches by Trudeau himself.

These claims are misleading—in large part because the Conflict of Interest Act, which governs the “ethical conduct” of public office holders, has been in place only since 2007, so during the terms of just two prime ministers: Justin Trudeau and Stephen Harper. Before the Conflict of Interest Act, there were no binding statutes or provisions regarding conflicts of interest for public office.

Trudeau’s government has been found guilty of breaking ethics rules on at least four occasions, two of those times by Trudeau himself. And, according to Democracy Watch, a non-profit citizen advocacy group, three members of the Harper government were found guilty of breaking ethics rules. (Harper himself was accused of breaching the act on multiple occasions, as reported by the National Post, but he was never investigated or found guilty.) So it is technically accurate to say that Trudeau’s government has broken the law more than Harper’s.

Additional context is necessary, however. Trudeau and Harper’s predecessors could not have “broken the law” in the same way, but they were found to breach ethical guidelines several times.

Past iterations of federal ethical codes, as described in the procedure book House of Commons Procedure and Practice: Second Edition, all did basically the same thing: set out rules for the conduct of civil servants, cabinet ministers, and other public officials. But there were no binding provisions that ensured those who breached the guidelines would be penalized. Conflict-of-interest or ethics violations were investigated on a case-by-case basis. Serious accusations sometimes led to the resignation of public officials, like in the case of John A. Macdonald.

(And, to be clear, though breaching the new Conflict of Interest Act constitutes “breaking the law,” it isn’t a Criminal Code offence. Trudeau and the cabinet ministers who violated the law did not commit a crime. Section 52 of the Conflict of Interest Act outlines that contraventions are violations, not offences, which can carry with them a monetary penalty “not exceeding $500.”)

The Conservative Party ad also uses misleading language to describe the actions of two Liberal cabinet ministers who were questioned by the ethics commissioner.

The video claims that Jane Philpott, who is now president of the Treasury Board and minister of digital government, spent “$3,700 of taxpayers’ money on a limousine ride from a campaign volunteer.” The implication is that this was a violation of the Conflict of Interest Act. In 2016, as reported by the Toronto Star, the ethics commissioner cleared Philpott of any wrongdoing.

According to the commissioner’s “Philpott Report,” Philpott used a car service before and after being appointed the minister of health in 2015. It is true that the owner of the car service, Reza Shirani, volunteered on and off for Philpott during her federal election campaign. But the ethics commissioner found that no preferential treatment was given to Shirani. A total of $3,704.57 was spent on two full-day trips—not one trip, as the attack ad suggests—in 2016: one in March of that year and one in July. The CBC reported that Philpott used a Lexus sedan, not a limousine or “stretch” vehicle, during these trips.

The Conservative Party video also says that Dominic LeBlanc, minister of intergovernmental and northern affairs and internal trade, gave a “$24 million fishing licence to [his] own family members.” It’s true that LeBlanc was found to have breached the Conflict of Interest Act, but it was for awarding a licence to the Five Nations Clam Company, not to a specific family member. (The company had ties to LeBlanc’s wife’s cousin, Gilles Thériault.) Unlike what the ad suggests, the licence was never issued. As reported by the Globe and Mail, LeBlanc’s department canceled the licence in August 2018 before it was ever presented to the company.