ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – It was supposed to be a look-ahead session as Justin Trudeau and his inner circle enter the second half of the Liberal government’s mandate this fall.
Instead, the prime minister was forced to look back on communication miscues while playing defence Wednesday on a range of issues as he wrapped up a two-day cabinet retreat in St. John’s, N.L.
“I’ll stand right in front of Seamus,” Trudeau said with a smile as he and his ministers gathered for a closing news conference at a downtown hotel.
His close friend and recently named Veterans Affairs Minister, Seamus O’Regan, had been stopped earlier by reporters asking about the latest revelations on public costs linked to a trip to the Bahamas last Christmas.
O’Regan was among those who joined Trudeau and his family for a holiday as guests of the Aga Khan, a wealthy philanthropist and hereditary spiritual leader to 15 million Ismaili Muslims around the globe. Trudeau has said the Aga Khan, whose foundation has received millions of dollars in federal funds for its international development work, is a family friend.
Trudeau said Wednesday he’s co-operating fully with an ongoing investigation by the federal ethics commissioner.
The trip came up Wednesday after CBC obtained documents under the Access to Information Act indicating the visit cost taxpayers more than $215,000 for RCMP, National Defence, Global Affairs Canada and Privy Council costs. The government has previously said much of that tab was for security costs that would have been racked up no matter where Trudeau vacationed.
“As is the case for any prime minister, the RCMP provides a protective service for the prime minister and my family and does an excellent job of that,” Trudeau told the news conference.
“I’m not going to question the job or the choices that the RCMP makes,” he added. “As for my future travel, I will keep you apprised as necessary.”
Trudeau was also peppered with queries on the government’s vow to legalize recreational marijuana by next summer, despite warnings from police forces and some provinces that there’s no way they’ll be ready.
He said it is vital to change a system that gives underage kids easier access to pot than beer while enriching mobsters and fuelling crime.
“That’s not right,” he told the news conference. “We need to make sure we’re protecting our kids.”
And the prime minister was repeatedly asked why his government has yet to decide where to send Canadian peacekeepers, despite announcing a year ago that it would make up to 600 troops available for United Nations missions. This, as Canada makes its case for a seat on the UN Security Council.
Both Trudeau and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan downplayed any impact the perceived waffling will have on that bid.
“Our allies want us to make sure that we make a responsible decision,” Sajjan said earlier Wednesday. “That when we contribute as a nation … we’re actually going to have an impact on the ground.”
Trudeau was also forced to defend his government’s plan to end what it calls unfair tax advantages for some wealthy small business owners — an issue that has sparked a backlash among doctors, lawyers, tax professionals, shopkeepers and others who’ve incorporated their small businesses in order to cut their income tax bill.
He said it was consistent with his plan to grow the middle class, help small business while asking the wealthy to pay their fair share.
“We will continue to ensure that we grow the Canadian economy in ways that benefit those who work hardest. And our support of small businesses and the communities they live in, our support for the middle class, remains unflinching.”
Trudeau reverted to what’s becoming a stock answer when asked if the tax blow-back, pot concerns and recent criticism over Ottawa’s hurricane Irma response indicate a communications problem.
“Every day is an opportunity to reflect on how we can do better to serve Canadians,” he said.
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