A guide to Canada’s recent scandals

By Joshua Drakes  |  Scribe

‘Canada’s reputation has been hurt abroad by the controversies surrounding our top leadership’

Canada has been the subject of many controversies afflicting its leadership in recent years that have damaged our international image, and here are some of the most recent examples.

Scandalous behavior has eroded Canada’s once ironclad reputation as an upstanding nation that actively combats corruption both at home and abroad.

Corruption and scandals are similar at first glance but very different when you delve deeper into them. While both are unacceptable conduct, corruption is a crime, while scandals are not. A clear definition is necessary to understand how the government approaches these topics.

The Canadian government classifies corruption as “a form of dishonesty or a criminal offense which is undertaken by a person or an organization which is entrusted with a position of authority, to acquire illicit benefits or abuse power for one’s gain.”

Nelson Wiseman, a professor emeritus at the University of Toronto, said that while corruption and scandals often go hand in hand, there are key differences between them that make it easy to distinguish. Mutual benefit is a huge part of corruption, and if a politician or organization does something that doesn’t benefit them, it falls more into the realm of a scandal rather than corruption. He points to the SNC-Lavalin Affair, in which Prime Minister Justin Trudeau interfered in the affairs of government to help the company. 

“It wasn’t corrupt in the sense that the prime minister himself was going to benefit from it,” Wiseman said. “It’s not like he owns shares in SNC-Lavalin. Or he was giving himself a contract.”

With that difference properly established, it will be easier to understand Canada’s scandals.

WE Charity controversy

In April of 2020, the prime minister and former Finance Minister Bill Morneau were trying to find some ways to support the country’s student population. WE Charity was picked by Trudeau and his team, as their preferred choice to administer a plan.

The charity was expected to administer the Canada Student Service Grant (CSSG), for students that volunteered during the pandemic. WE Charity was also, strangely, the only body to submit proposals to administer the plans. However, no one else submitted a proposal, and the charity was immediately picked. Groups like the YMCA were considered, yet they were not contacted by the government.

This sort of rushed picking was quite problematic when context is considered. WE Charity was collaborating with the government on the CSSG before any announcement, and it required a government bailout during the pandemic. It also couldn’t operate in Quebec, leaving out a large province from the plan. Trudeau’s mother and brother were also paid speakers at WE Charity events. The trail doesn’t end with Trudeau’s family, Morneau also has ties, with one daughter employed by the organization.

As a result of the controversy, WE Charity withdrew from the plan, leaving many students hanging, waiting for support that may or may not have arrived. As a result, Trudeau’s approval rating fell. In the Trudeau III report, he was cleared of wrongdoing, but Morneau had broken three conflicts of interest laws in the Morneau II report.

SNC-Lavalin affair

This scandal runs over a much longer time frame than the WE Charity scandal. The SNC-Lavalin affair was a political scandal involving Trudeau and the company SNC-Lavalin, originally investigated for fraud for its actions in Libya.

The company was investigated for making payments of around $48 million to Libyan government officials between 2001 and 2011. The company attempted to defend itself by using a deferred prosecution agreement, a new amendment that Trudeau had created recently that was heavily lobbied by SNC-Lavalin itself. 

The law allows companies to admit to guilt and pay a fine to avoid facing trial. If the company faced a trial, it would lose the ability to compete in any government contracts in the country. The goal was to avoid having to fight in court, in case it was convicted. As the company employs some 9,000 people across Canada, such a conviction would damage employment, according to the company.

The prime minister and his cabinet were found to have not only created this law with support from SNC-Lavalin, but they were also investigated for interfering in legal proceedings by trying to put pressure on the then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould. She claimed that Trudeau and his staff had pressured her on numerous occasions to try and interfere with the case. A fact Trudeau denies. It didn’t help his case that SNC-Lavalin had made illegal donations to the Liberal Party for years until 2009.

The issue at hand is that the attorney general is supposed to be an independent, non-partisan role to oversee federal prosecutions. The interference is an attempt to subvert its role to further an agenda. 

Trudeau was investigated by Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion in the Trudeau II report, who found that he had violated Section nine of the Conflict of Interest Act, meaning that he had tried to use his position to influence the attorney general to change their stance on the case. The attorney general does have override powers in such measures.

Aga Khan affair

The Aga Khan affair marked the first time in Canadian history that a sitting prime minister violated the Conflict of Interest Act. Never before has a prime minister broken this law.

The scandal kicked off when Trudeau accepted private island vacations and flights from the Aga Khan, a spiritual leader of the Shia Ismaili religion. 

What raised concerns was the fact that Aga Khan Foundation was a registered lobby at the time, receiving $50 million from the government in 2016.

The fact these trips were kept hidden and only disclosed when leaked by the media drew immediate calls for an investigation. The Official Opposition called for the investigation and filed complaints on Jan. 8 and 11 to the Office of the Conflict of Interest and Ethics Commissioner. 

Trudeau adopted the defense of claiming that Aga Khan and himself were long-time friends, and the trips were personal. This is supported by the fact that his father, Pierre Trudeau, and Aga Khan were known friends. However, during the investigation by the then Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson concluded that the two had no substantial interactions for at least 30 years, apart from a meeting at the funeral of Pierre Trudeau.

She determined that personal reasons were not a valid defense for the actions that Trudeau took. The trips also racked up some $215,000 of government funds. The fact that the trips were kept hidden, along with the hidden bill Canadians had to foot, Trudeau was found to have breached at least four sections of Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act, being five,11,12, and 21.

What can we learn from this?

There is a common theme that has run with all of these stories. There is a lack of accountability and consquence for the highest levels of the Canadian government. It seems that even though some officials can be found guilty of committing crimes, many escape any kind of discipline. 

Going forward, Canada will need to make a more visible effort to not only fight corruption but uphold morality in government. 

Canada has had enough moral issues in its past, it doesn’t need anymore.

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