IN-DEPTH: Trudeau Foundation and the Chinese Donation: What’s All the Controversy About?

IN-DEPTH: Trudeau Foundation and the Chinese Donation: What’s All the Controversy About?
A Trudeau Foundation sign at its office in Montreal on April 19, 2023. (Noé Chartier/The Epoch Times)
Omid Ghoreishi

At the centre of the controversy surrounding the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation is a donation by two Chinese regime-linked figures and allegations that the donation was meant to wield influence over Justin Trudeau, who went on to become prime minister of Canada.

Since then, other controversial developments have transpired, including appointments of former Trudeau Foundation members by the prime minister to probe foreign interference issues, the proximity of Trudeau or his office with the foundation and its members, and the foundation’s handling of the Chinese donation.

Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation

The Trudeau Foundation was created in 2001 in honour of the late former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. It was given a $125 million endowment by the federal government.
The charity provides mentorship, scholarship, and fellowship programs focused on leadership development of scholars in various academic fields. It’s governed by two bodies, its members and a board of directors, with limits of 30 members and 18 directors. The members elect directors to the board, which in turn manages the foundation’s operations.
The directors are elected for renewable two-year terms. Two seats are reserved for directors appointed by the Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development, and another two for representatives of the family of Pierre Trudeau. Six seats are reserved for members appointed by the minister, and another three for liquidators of the succession of Pierre Trudeau.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting at the Manitoba Building Trades Institute in Winnipeg on April 12, 2023. (The Canadian Press/John Woods)
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during a town hall meeting at the Manitoba Building Trades Institute in Winnipeg on April 12, 2023. (The Canadian Press/John Woods)

Trudeau’s children, including current prime minister Justin Trudeau, have served as foundation members. Justin Trudeau has said he put his relationship with the foundation on pause after becoming leader of the Liberal Party in 2013.

Justin Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre, is currently a member of the foundation. Their sister, Sarah Coyne, was on the board of directors but resigned due to the recent controversies.

Notable past members or directors of the foundation include former governor general David Johnston and former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, among many other political insiders.

A National Post analysis shows that donations to the foundation significantly jumped in 2013 after Trudeau became Liberal leader. Prior to 2013, donations were around $62,000 per year. They jumped to $254,000 in 2013 and to over $600,000 in 2015 and 2016 after Trudeau became prime minister. At the same time, foreign donations started to appear in 2014 and onwards, reaching $535,000 in 2016.

Chinese Donation

The controversy around Chinese influence implications first began in 2016, when The Globe and Mail reported that Trudeau attended a cash-for-access fundraiser where Chinese Communist Party-linked businessman Zhang Bin was also in attendance. Weeks after the event, the Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal’s Faculty of Law—Pierre Trudeau’s alma mater and former workplace—announced having received a donation of $1 million from Zhang and another wealthy Chinese national.
Zhang is a member of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body within the communist regime.
Amid opposition parties’ request to investigate any influence concerns, then-ethics commissioner Mary Dawson said there was no evidence that Trudeau had any role in soliciting funds from Zhang, as the donation deal was negotiated after Trudeau had ended his involvement with the foundation.
The Liberals did end cash-for-access events in the aftermath of the controversy, however.

The controversy increased a few notches in recent months after media reports of leaked intelligence information revealed more about China’s influence operations in Canada.

A Feb. 28 Globe and Mail report citing national security officials said the Canadian Security Intelligence Service in 2014 had captured a conversation between a Chinese diplomat and Zhang, where the diplomat instructed Zhang to donate to the Trudeau Foundation. The diplomat reportedly told Zhang that the Liberal Party, which by then was led by Trudeau, could potentially defeat the governing Conservatives in the 2015 election, and that Beijing would reimburse him for the donation amount.
Of the donated amount, $140,000 went to the Trudeau Foundation. Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre has been calling for Trudeau’s brother, Alexandre, to appear before a parliamentary committee since he “was the one that negotiated and signed the deal to receive the money.”

Election Interference Probes

Amid recent revelations of Chinese interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections, the Liberal government has touted several initiatives and probes to ensure election integrity. But appointments heading those investigations by Trudeau’s governments have themselves been controversial because of their ties to the Trudeau Foundation.
On Feb. 27, the Conservatives cried foul over the appointment of former Trudeau Foundation president and CEO Morris Rosenberg to produce a report on foreign interference in the 2021 election. Rosenberg, a former deputy minister of foreign affairs, served as president and CEO of the Trudeau Foundation from August 2014 to July 2018.
Then-Gov. Gen. David Johnston at Rideau Hall on Oct. 9, 2013.  (The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand)
Then-Gov. Gen. David Johnston at Rideau Hall on Oct. 9, 2013.  (The Canadian Press/Fred Chartrand)
Most controversial has been Trudeau’s appointment of former governor general David Johnston as special rapporteur to probe foreign interference. The opposition parties say there are conflict of interest issues since Johnston is a Trudeau family friend and has been a member of the Trudeau Foundation.
Trudeau has defended Johnston’s appointment and praised his character. He has also rejected opposition calls for holding a public inquiry into the issue of election interference, saying instead that the government will hold one if Johnston decides an inquiry is necessary.

Board Resignations and Aftermath

On March 1, shortly after the Globe’s report on the Chinese donation and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) links, the Trudeau Foundation said it would return the money.
But further controversy ensued after La Presse reported on April 12 that the foundation hadn’t in fact returned the money. Citing unnamed insiders at the foundation and an internal document, La Presse said the money couldn’t be returned because the name on the donation cheque wasn’t the same name as that of the real donor.
The entire leadership of the foundation, specifically the board as well as the president and CEO, announced their resignation on April, with three directors agreeing to remain on an interim basis to continue operations.
On April 13, Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet called on the Office of the Auditor General to investigate the donation to the foundation. The following day, Poilievre asked the Canada Revenue Agency to audit the foundation, giving special focus to the reported Beijing-linked donation.
The foundation’s interim board chair has welcomed an investigation by Auditor General Karen Hogan. Hogan said on April 18 that her office is assessing whether its mandate would allow for such an investigation into the foundation.

PMO Contact With Foundation

Another report by La Presse on April 14 stated that although the prime minister has said there’s a wall separating his government from the Trudeau Foundation, his office contacted the foundation in 2016 after the Globe report revealing Zhang’s donation. The Prime Minister’s Office reportedly defended the move, saying it’s normal for staff to gather information on matters that the prime minister could be interviewed about.
Opposition leaders have also been peppering Trudeau with questions this week, after news emerged that he stayed at a luxurious estate in Jamaica owned by a wealthy family that made a sizable donation to the Trudeau Foundation two years ago.