Trudeau Foundation submits to independent investigation into 'controversial' donation from China

On Tuesday, the CEO and most of the board of directors of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation resigned. Edward Johnson, one of the three remaining board members, announced Wednesday they are commencing an independent investigation into the controversial $200,000 donation from proxies to Beijing.

Trudeau Foundation submits to independent investigation into 'controversial' donation from China
The Canadian Press / Chris Young
Remove Ads

"Following a unanimous consensus reached by the board before its dissolution, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is launching an independent review of its acceptance of the donation with a potential connection to the Chinese government," he said. "This review will be conducted by an accounting firm instructed by a law firm, neither of which was previously involved with the foundation."

Those who left the board Tuesday cite the "politicization" of the 2016 donation as the reason for the mass exodus. However, La Presse reported Wednesday that it stemmed from an apparent divide over calls for an independent investigation.

One source said the resignations occurred because of a "corrosive atmosphere" where people had become "suspicious of each other."

At a contentious board meeting on March 31, the foundation passed a resolution to hold an independent forensic audit of the donation, including examination of all related emails and interviews with anyone involved with the gift. 

"The political climate surrounding a donation received by the foundation in 2016 has put a great deal of pressure on the foundation's management and volunteer board of directors, as well as on our staff and our community," they said in a statement. "The circumstances created by the politicization of the foundation have made it impossible to continue with the status quo."

According to sources knowledgeable of the situation, an independent committee will oversee the investigation after the terms of reference are approved. They expressed concern to the foundation's leadership that Johnson and Trudeau family friends Bruce McNiven and Peter Sahlas — the three interim directors — should not be involved in the investigation.

The resolution also asked directors who served as board members at the time of the donation to avoid interfering in the investigation. The board typically consists of up to 18 volunteer directors — selected by 30 volunteer members of the foundation.

The government selects six members through the minister of industry, and three spots are reserved for Pierre Trudeau's heirs. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exited the foundation before being elected Liberal leader, while his brother Sacha Trudeau is now a member.

Johnson, the board's current chair, said getting new leadership is a priority. "The recent departure of several key individuals from the foundation means our priority is an efficient transition ensuring our operational capacity. This work is well underway but not yet complete."

The Globe and Mail first alleged a Chinese diplomat and billionaire Bin Zhang discussed the possibility of the Liberals forming the government in 2015. An unnamed security source said the diplomat instructed Zhang to donate $1 million to the Trudeau Foundation.

Seven months into Trudeau's first term as prime minister, Zhang attended a Liberal fundraiser at the Toronto home of Chinese Business Chamber of Canada chair Benson Wong, which Trudeau attended as the guest of honour.

Weeks after the fundraiser, the Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal announced that Zhang and Niu Gensheng donated $1 million "to honour the memory and leadership" of Pierre Trudeau, who, as prime minister, opened diplomatic relations with China in 1970.

Of the $1 million, they pledged $200,000 to the Trudeau Foundation, which provides scholarships, academic fellowships and leadership programs. Outgoing CEO Pascale Fournier said the foundation would return the $140,000 it received from the $200,000 pledge.

La Presse reported that the cheque the foundation received had a different name than the donor, making it difficult to refund. However, Johnson confirmed they refunded the fees to the same person on the cheque but did not disclose their identity.

A copy of the receipt for the first $70,000 installment of the donation, obtained through an access-to-information request by The Globe, confirmed the name and address on the receipt. It does not bear the names of Zhang or Niu. Instead, it names Millennium Golden Eagle International as the donor and lists an address in Hong Kong.

The same documents obtained under access to information showed the China Cultural Industry Association — a state-backed group that builds "the soft power of Chinese culture" globally — later asked for the tax receipt to be reissued to its address in Beijing, not the address in Hong Kong as the company does not appear to have ever registered there.

The prime minister's brother and foundation member, Alexandre Trudeau, signed the agreement with the two Chinese businessmen who took credit for the donation.

Foundation policy in 2016 required then-president and chief executive Morris Rosenberg, a former senior civil servant, to sign for gifts under $1 million. Trudeau recently tapped Rosenberg to investigate Chinese interference in the 2021 federal election. 

The prime minister said Wednesday he had had no dealings with the foundation in over a decade and trusted it to govern itself.

"It's been ten years that I have had no involvement with the foundation that carries my father's name. I think it's important that the foundation itself answers these questions and reflects on how it can continue its important work," said Trudeau.

The foundation primarily provides scholarships to doctoral students at universities in Canada and abroad. Following Pierre Trudeau's death, Ottawa gave the foundation a $125 million endowment that the foundation invests into and uses the interest to fund scholarships and public events.

Remove Ads
Remove Ads

Don't Get Censored

Big Tech is censoring us. Sign up so we can always stay in touch.

Remove Ads