OTTAWA—The Prime Minister’s Office is defending Justin Trudeau’s secret family vacation — in which he, his wife and children took a government jet to the Bahamas and stayed at the billionaire Aga Khan’s private island — stating it was necessary to protect their privacy during the holidays.
“Like many Canadians, the prime minister and his family spent private time together over the holiday season,” Trudeau’s press secretary, Cameron Ahmad, said in an emailed statement.
“In order to protect the privacy of the prime minister and his family, we do not disclose the locations of their vacations prior to their departure.”
The revelation came after days of public pressure on Trudeau’s office to reveal where he was vacationing during the holidays. His daily itinerary, which typically outlines the prime minister’s schedule and appearances, simply said: “Personal.”
Ahmad said the prime minister, his family and “a few friends” were invited to the Aga Khan’s privately owned Bell Island for the holidays. Trudeau and his family took a government Challenger jet, following “long-standing” personal and business travel protocol for the prime minister, while their accompanying friends got there by other means, he added.
The Trudeaus will reimburse the public for the equivalent cost of commercial flights to and from Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, Ahmad said.
“As you are aware, his highness (the Aga Khan) and the prime minister have been close family friends for many years,” Ahmad said.
A similar situation played out last year, when Trudeau was photographed during the holidays by an American celebrity gossip website at a lavish resort in St. Kitts and Nevis. After keeping his holiday details secret, the PMO was forced to explain that Trudeau and his family covered their expenses during their Caribbean sojourn.
After the visit to the Aga Khan’s private island came to light and following accusations of kowtowing to wealthy donors at elite Liberal fundraisers, it was announced Trudeau will embark on a campaign-style tour, talking to average folks at coffee shops and church basements across the country. His communications director, Kate Purchase, says Trudeau will make three or four pit stops each day of the tour which is slated to take up six or seven days over the next three weeks.
“We see this as part of a concerted effort to remain connected to Canadians, at home in their communities,” Purchase said. “The prime minister wants to hear from them how they are feeling at the start of 2017, what their concerns and anxieties are and what we can do to help alleviate that.”
Trudeau’s holiday travel habits contrast with those of some other world leaders. U.S. President Barack Obama, for example, openly discussed his plan to spend Christmas in Hawaii last month (he was even photographed shirtless on the beach in 2008) and American reporters are regularly briefed on their leader’s vacation details.
Former prime minister Jean Chrétien, however, made some secret trips of his own. During his tenure, the Star uncovered unpublicized jaunts to a Disney resort in Florida and a trip to Minnesota.
Trudeau’s latest unpublicized trip featured a more exclusive locale: the Aga Khan’s private Bell Island, a promontory surrounded by azure seas in the Bahamas.
The Aga Khan is the leader of the Nizari Ismaili Muslim group, a wealthy figurehead born in Switzerland who was hailed on his recent 80th birthday by Trudeau as “mentor and friend” who “has shown time and time again that no matter our faith, where we were born, what colour is our skin, or what language we speak, we are equal members of this world.”
The religious leader’s ownership of Bell Island — which sits in a national park — drew controversy when he was given government approval to dredge the seabed to make way for a new marina, the Nassau Guardian reported in 2011.
Trudeau’s trip is also notable for the Aga Khan’s many ties to Canada. Since 2004, the government has sponsored 16 international development projects spearheaded by the Aga Khan Foundation, worth a total of more than $300 million over several years. This includes projects in Afghanistan and Egypt — with a maximum government contribution of $66 million — that started in 2015 and are scheduled to last until 2020.
The Aga Khan himself was given the rare distinction of an honorary citizenship in 2009 and opened an Islamic museum in Toronto in 2014.