Thursday, May 4, 2023

Alexandre Trudeau can't believe anyone cares about Chinese interference

Alexandre Trudeau can't believe anyone cares about Chinese interference

Alexandre Trudeau appears before the Standing Committee on Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics, studying foreign interference, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday, May 3, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang

The only donation agreement Alexandre Trudeau ever signed for the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation in his 20 years there is now at the centre of an ethics probe. He doesn’t consider it suspicious. 

The real problem at the foundation, according to Alexandre Trudeau, was actually its previous president, Pascale Fournier — a former Trudeau scholar, now law professor at the University of Ottawa with a research background in human rights, critical legal theory and ethics. Fournier resigned last month after insisting the board use an independent process to audit the donation in 2016. The question of whether the foundation was a vehicle for Chinese subversion is now a case of he said, she said. 

Trudeau testified Wednesday at the House of Commons ethics committee studying foreign interference. He was asked to speak specifically about the 2016 donation, that came from Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin, which, the Globe and Mail reported in February, had been planned for years by the Chinese government in anticipation of the Liberals being elected to government.  

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CSIS, according to the Globe, captured a conversation at a Chinese consulate in Canada wherein a diplomat instructed Zhang to donate $1 million to the foundation, the bulk of which ended up being donated to the University of Montreal instead, with $200,000 going to the charity. The diplomat promised Zhang that the funds would be reimbursed by the Chinese government — a straw donation, similar to straw purchasing to illegally buy guns or partake in mortgage fraud.  

At committee, Trudeau, who is a member of the foundation, defended the donation and accused the organization’s former president, Fournier, of lying and denounced reporting in the Globe and Mail about foreign interference as “poor journalism.” He did not contradict any of the facts that were reported in the paper. He didn’t believe interference was likely in 2016 when the donation contract was signed — even though warnings of Chinese interference have been made to governments by intelligence officials for the past 30 years. “Frankly this is a waste of time, because there is not a foreign interference issue here at the foundation and I know the documentary record will make that clear as it’s disseminated,” Trudeau told the committee.

Still, Trudeau admitted that the donation contract for the $200,000 was the only one he ever signed for the foundation in his time there. He said this was in part because then-CEO Morris Rosenberg asked him to sign it, and in part because it was an unusual four-way agreement (between the donor, the University of Montreal, the foundation and the family) that required his sign-off as a representative of the Trudeau family. It doesn’t seal the case, but it’s quite the coincidence.

Regarding the apparent straw donor, Trudeau assured the committee that he was legitimate (and seemed uninterested in having the Trudeau family involved in the donation). Later, Trudeau admitted to the committee that he hadn’t seen the donor much at all, meeting him once in 2014 and a second time in 2016 at the donation’s signing ceremony. Trudeau’s assessment was largely based on his own interactions with Zhang and the fact that Zhang’s company, a Canadian corporation, was in good standing with Canadian regulators. Which hardly proves he wasn’t a foreign influence agent.Fournier testified last week that the foundation’s record keeping on the donation was strange — she found it odd that for Zhang’s particular donation, the names on the donation contracts, receipts and on the annual reports didn’t match. Furthermore, she discovered, she said that the foundation’s staff had been emailing China for advice on how to fill out the forms.

Trudeau said it was false that there were any names falsely listed as the donor, and that he believed it was false that the annual reports contained contradicting information, even though he hadn’t seen the reports. “I think that’s false. I’d have to see the annual reports, but I think that’s false.” He dismissed Fournier’s concerns over different receipts for the donation, one with a Chinese address, and the other with a Quebec one. “She was using that information to cause tension,” Alexandre Trudeau said.He further insisted that Fournier falsely cited legal advice behind asking the board to set up an independent committee to review the donation — that advice being that board members who were present back when the donation was made were in a conflict of interest and needed to recuse themselves from any investigation. He said this was an unusual move because the foundation’s bylaws say that lawyers answer to the board as a whole. Furthermore, Trudeau said the lawyers told the board there was no conflict. “Trust evaporated when she lied to the board about legal advice,” he said.

Trudeau also implied that Fournier presided over a management crisis (he noted that this was over now) and unusually high staff turnover in recent years.  Incompetence and dishonesty are severe accusations to launch against Fournier, given her decorated background in law and her special interest in ethics. There wasn’t much evidence she mismanaged her position at the head of the organization or that she lied to her own board of directors (indeed, prior to the governance meltdown, she had been offered a two-year extension on her contract). Her caution regarding a suspicious donation — and desire to prevent a conflict of interest from tarnishing any internal investigation — makes entire sense considering the gravity of the situation. It would also make sense though, for Trudeau to accuse her of lying to sully her credibility.

Despite his defence of the foundation, Trudeau himself acknowledged that there were problems with academic diplomacy — the Zhang donation represented the first time it was tried, and the last. “In 2013, academic diplomacy was very interesting. (It was) interesting to have Chinese researchers come and participate in our events,” he said. He acknowledged that it became “problematic” to engage in academic diplomacy after his brother became the prime minister in 2015. It was problematic long before, though — Justin Trudeau was made Liberal leader in April 2013, meaning there was reason enough to donate for the purpose of gaining access and influence.

The Prime Minister maintains that he is completely separate from the foundation. He was directly involved with it until 2014 and now claims to have “absolutely no intersection.” Still, Justin Trudeau is listed as an inactive “succession member” of the foundation in its 2021-22 annual report, and some board seats are reserved for family members. His connection to the foundation is very real. The Trudeau Foundation, which was granted $125 million by a previous Liberal government, is also considered a government entity and must comply with the Access to Information Act and the Privacy Act like any other federal department or agency.  

Foundation involvement is limited to the non-political brother Alexandre Trudeau, who says he keeps foundation matters out of conversation. (Alexandre Trudeau didn’t confirm whether there was a written policy or procedure to maintain a firewall between the brothers in case a politically sensitive issue arose.) It should also be noted that Chinese foreign influence tactics include the targeting of family members. 

It’s messy to blend family elitism with our government institutions. Perhaps it’s not a good idea.

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