An association overseen by Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party is behind the $200,000 check to the Trudeau Foundation, which the organization attributed to a Chinese billionaire, shows a series of internal documents obtained by La Presse.
The Trudeau Foundation presented the donation as coming from Zhang Bin. However, this Chinese businessman is also president of the China Cultural Industry Association (CCIA). This organization is “approved by the Beijing State Council” and “supervised by the Ministry of Culture” of China, according to its website.
In July 2016 communications obtained by La Presse, the CCIA confirms the payment of a first installment of $70,000 to the Trudeau Foundation account. In total, the Foundation received two checks for $70,000 from Aigle d’or du Millénaire International, whose head office is located in a Dorval mansion.
Citing an unnamed source, The Globe and Mail reported Thursday that the CCIA had contacted the Trudeau Foundation to dictate the name that should be on the tax receipt. The organization was asked not to use the names of the two billionaires, but that of the company owned by Zhang Bin, Golden Eagle of the Millennium.
Last February, The Globe and Mail reported the contents of a communication intercepted by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. It showed that it was the Chinese authorities who had asked Zhang Bin to finance the Trudeau Foundation by promising him a refund.
On its website, the CCIA, founded in 2013, says its mission is to “promote the soft power of Chinese culture and help it unfold globally.”
One page profiles its chairman Zhang Bin as “a member of the Twelfth National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference,” an organization controlled by the Communist Party.
The CCIA also makes no secret of the ties it has tried to forge with Justin Trudeau. A statement on its site relates to a meeting between the Prime Minister and representatives of this association in May 2016, in the vast Toronto residence of Benson Wong, chairman of the board of directors of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce of Canada. It was two weeks before the signing of the contract officially concluded between Zhang Bin and the Trudeau Foundation for the famous donation of $ 200,000.
“Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recognized the efforts of the CCIA to deepen cultural and educational ties between China and Canada and expressed the hope that social organizations will play an even greater role in exchanges between the two countries in setting up think tanks,” the CCIA says.
A photo of Justin Trudeau shaking hands with Zhang Bin illustrates the release.
In 2016, the $200,000 donation to the Trudeau Foundation was made in conjunction with another $800,000 donation to the University of Montreal to fund law scholarships and erect a statue of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. .
This portion of the funds was to come from another billionaire CCIA member: Niu Gensheng. This Inner Mongolian philanthropist is listed as a “consultant” to the organization on his website. He participated in a joint ceremony at the University of Montreal with Zhang Bin, the rector at the time, Guy Breton, and the Prime Minister’s brother, Alexandre Trudeau.
The exchanges between the Trudeau Foundation and the CCIA also contain several mentions of this second businessman close to Beijing.
In the end, the Foundation only received $140,000, which it unsuccessfully attempted to repay, as La Presse reported on Thursday.
For its part, the University of Montreal received $500,000.
The establishment also plans to reimburse them. “We are evaluating all our options, in light of the information circulating at the moment,” communications director Sophie Langlois said on Wednesday.
In Quebec, the local branch of Zhang Bin’s company, Golden Eagle of the International Millennium, had a Brossard businessman of Chinese origin, Hu Guojun, as its CEO. Contacted by La Presse, he said he was unaware of the donation that the company would have made to the Trudeau Foundation in 2016.
Millennium Golden Eagle, “it’s supposed to be a holding company for making investments in real estate,” he said. He also assured that he never had any decision-making power within the company. “They just needed a Canadian to set up the company, by law,” Hu Guojun explained.
Hu Guojun stopped being CEO of Millennium Golden Eagle in 2020, but he still had ties until recently with the other billionaire CCIA member involved in donations to the Trudeau Foundation and the University of Montreal, Niu Gensheng. Hu Guojun was vice president of the “North America” branch of the Chinese philanthropist’s charitable organization, the Lao Niu Foundation, a post he left on March 1, according to public documents.
In addition, two resigned from the Trudeau Foundation doubt the real independence of the investigation launched on Wednesday by the organization to shed light on the “Chinese donation”. The current president, Edward Johnson, may not give investigators full latitude to shed light on the case, they believe. Both of these sources requested anonymity as they are not authorized to speak to the media.
At the time of the donation, Edward Johnson was not only a member of the Board of Trustees, but also Chairman of the Foundation’s Audit Committee. As such, he would be directly implicated if it appears that this donation was not in accordance with ethics or the law. “It’s a show, this investigation. There is no real independence,” the first source says.
The three board members who are still in office at the Trudeau Foundation, Mr. Johnson, Bruce McNiven and Peter Sahlas, who are all three lawyers, are all in conflict of interest in this regard, adds our second source, since they accepted the donation from the two Chinese businessmen. “They know the whole story. And they did not want to recuse themselves for [a first] independent investigation. »
Some of them were also extremely concerned that a law firm had refused to open a trust account to deposit the disputed funds, “for ethical reasons”.
In his response, Mr. Johnson was reassuring. “The Code of Ethics of the Barreau du Québec is very strict and our request did not fall within their criteria,” he wrote. But I emphasize that this in no way means that our request was unethical or that ethical faults were committed in the handling of this file. »
On March 31, the board members agreed to launch an independent investigation, under the auspices of Miller Thomson and accountants from Deloitte. “I therefore confirm that in order to ensure the complete integrity of the investigation process, any member of the council active in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 must make themselves available to answer questions, writes the resigning director general, Pascale Fournier . In the meantime, these individuals must withdraw and not participate in any discussion […] in relation to any event or subject related to this donation. »
However, in the following days, the members of the council targeted by this request refused to recuse themselves, five people who resigned told La Presse on Tuesday. It was this “ethical crisis” that erupted the Trudeau Foundation this week. A total of eight board members resigned on Tuesday, as did four senior executives and six mentors who worked for the Foundation.
Edward Johnson did not respond to our interview request.
Although Justin Trudeau has always claimed that a wall separates his office from the foundation that bears his father’s name, La Presse obtained an email exchange, which dates from November 2016, where a key employee of the Prime Minister’s Office claims details of the “Chinese gift” which at the time was only a few months old.
The exchange takes place on Thursday, November 24, 2016, five months after the donation contract, worth $200,000 for the foundation, was signed by Zhang Bin, Gensheng Niu, and also by Alexandre Trudeau, brother of Justin Trudeau and a member of the foundation’s board of directors at the time.
The two people who exchanged these emails are the foundation’s executive director at the time, Élise Comtois, and Zita Astravas, who then held the title of director of issues management in the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“As requested, below are the key elements we provided to media who contacted us regarding the $200,000 donation from Zhang Bin and Gensheng Niu,” Ms. Comtois wrote upfront.
The Executive Director then describes the main points of the donation agreement, indicates that the foundation is an independent and non-partisan organization, that the law faculty of the Université de Montréal also receives a donation, that negotiations on the said donation have started in September 2014, and the public signing ceremony took place on June 1.
It then details the sums involved, both for the university and for the foundation.
La Presse was unable to read the full exchange between the two women. It is therefore not known what, precisely, Ms. Astravas’ request was. We also do not know who initiated these exchanges.
On November 22, 2016, so two days before the exchange, the Globe and Mail had revealed that Justin Trudeau had attended, in May 2016, a fundraising event at $ 1,500 a cover, where several wealthy Chinese businessmen , including billionaire Zhang Bin, were present. The same day, the daily had also unveiled the content of Mr. Zhang’s donation to the University of Montreal and the Trudeau Foundation.
Again Thursday, Justin Trudeau repeated in Regina that he had not interfered in the affairs of the foundation for 10 years, since the time of his election as head of the Liberal Party of Canada. “As people know, I haven’t been involved with the foundation that bears my father’s name in any way for about 10 years, and continue to be,” he answered the question. of a journalist who asked him if the Trudeau Foundation had properly handled the “Chinese donation” affair.
Élise Comtois and Zita Astravas declined our interview request. Ms. Astravas transferred our questions to the Prime Minister’s Office. “This matter received considerable attention at the time in the media and in the House of Commons, and it is common and normal for Cabinet staff to gather information on matters on which the Prime Minister is interviewed,” said Ann-Clara Vaillancourt, Justin Trudeau’s press secretary.
Concerned by the serial revelations about the “Chinese donation”, the leader of the Bloc Québécois, Yves-François Blanchet, wrote Thursday to the Auditor General (AG), Karen Hogan, asking her to look into the file. The spokesperson for the office of the VG, Vincent Frigon, confirmed receipt of the Bloc request on Thursday. This will be analyzed to determine whether to carry out an audit on the federal aid program which paid 125 million as start-up funds for the Foundation, a payment which dates back to 2002.