OTTAWA — A pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. A limited edition, painted leather clutch. Beauty products, glittering jewelry, shoes, luggage, children’s clothing, sporting accessories.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Gregoire Trudeau, are regularly showered with lavish gifts from world leaders and dignitaries, often as a matter of protocol.
But a growing trend among the high-priced offerings to the prime ministerial family are gifts from private companies — clothing and accessories from Canadian designers hoping the famous family will sport their wares in public.
Canada’s ethics watchdog, Mario Dion, says all the gifts listed on the prime minister’s public gift registry have been cleared by his office and are compliant with the rules of the Conflict of Interest Act.
But NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus says he believes these corporate gifts are “problematic.”
“What’s concerning is fashion labels sending clothes to the family, because this is a family that is very much in the spotlight, very much in the world of Instagram and there would be a very real benefit for a company to have them sporting their clothing labels as gifts,” he said.
“The connection to the pecuniary interests of those companies is clear and direct.”
If the Trudeaus are photographed sporting their gear, the companies often use these images to promote their business brands.
For example, the prime minister’s most recent disclosure shows he was gifted some clothing for his son, Hadrien, in July from the Vancouver-based company North Kinder. In late August, a photo was posted to Gregoire Trudeau’s Instagram account of her children and husband, featuring Hadrien wearing a T-shirt made by North Kinder. The company later posted this photo to its business Facebook page for promotional purposes.
Numerous clothing designers have offered gifts to Gregoire Trudeau, and have later posted photos or references to the prime minister’s wife sporting their wares on their official websites and social media feeds. They are also apt to name-drop the Trudeaus when interviewed in magazine-style feature stories about their brands.
It’s a relatively new phenomenon for Canada’s political realm.
Canada’s Conflict of Interest Act has only been in force since 2007, and has therefore governed only two prime ministers and their governments — those of Trudeau and Stephen Harper.
Harper received his own trove of gifts: paintings, sculptures and even some personalized gifts such as Beatles paraphernalia from world leaders and dignitaries during his tenure as prime minister.
But the clothing and accessories from Canadian fashion designers being sent to the Trudeau family fall within a newer category, Angus argues, more in line with the kinds of gifts given to celebrities and royals.
“We are dealing with a new genre of politics which is very much focused on the politician as a celebrity, and nobody anywhere in the world personifies this more than Justin Trudeau and the Trudeau family,” Angus said.
“They’re trailblazers in the sort of brand identification of celebrity politicians. So a clothing line tied to them would have huge financial benefits.”
For that reason, Angus believes these kinds of gifts should not be accepted.
All gifts to public office holders over $200 must be publicly declared. Anything over $1,000 must be forfeited to the Crown, although they can be retained if the public office holder pays the difference.
The rules dictate that public officer holders cannot accept gifts that could reasonably be perceived as attempts to influence them in the exercise of their official duties, but there are a few exceptions to the rules.
Trudeau and other MPs can accept gifts given as a normal expression of courtesy or protocol within customary standards for their position. They can also receive gifts from relatives and friends.
Dion’s office has determined the clothing and accessories given to the Trudeau family fall within the protocol exceptions.
But Trudeau has found himself in hot water over gifts in the past.
Last year, former ethics commissioner Mary Dawson found Trudeau broke Canada’s ethics laws by accepting two all-expenses-paid family trips to a private Bahamian island owned by the Aga Khan, head of a charitable organization that lobbies the federal government for funds.
Trudeau, who has since apologized, initially defended the trip as a gift from a longtime family friend.
The whole ordeal raised questions about who is considered a “friend.” Dion, who took over as ethics commissioner in January, says he believes the exception for friends giving gifts to public office holders should be eliminated from the act.
“A friend is a very, very subjective notion,” Dion said.
“Some people have 3,000 friends on Facebook, some people have only one friend they confide to. So what is a friend?”
Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch, says he believes the Trudeau family should pay to rent or borrow fashion label clothing if they want to promote Canadian brands and should not accept them as gifts.
“You can’t allow the appearance of public office holders being bought off,” he said.
An senior government official who spoke to The Canadian Press on background said some garments listed under Gregoire Trudeau’s gift registry were borrowed or loaned or were later donated to charities, but this information is not contained in the public disclosures.
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Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press