Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes part in a news conference on Parliament Hill following a cabinet shuffle in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie(reuters_tickers)
OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canada's ethics watchdog is investigating whether Prime Minister Justin Trudeau violated conflict of interest laws by taking a New Year's vacation on an island in the Bahamas owned by the Aga Khan, the first such probe of a sitting prime minister.
Trudeau has faced repeated questions from the opposition about his trip to Bell Island, the Aga Khan's private island, which sits in a national park in the Bahamas. He said last week that he had flown there by private helicopter.
In a letter to a Conservative lawmaker dated Jan. 13, Mary Dawson, the federal conflict of interest and ethics commissioner, said she has "commenced an examination" to determine whether Trudeau's trip contravened the Conflict of Interest Act.
The probe could hurt Trudeau, who has high ratings even as the Liberals have been dogged by spending controversies, including his health minister's use of a luxury car service owned by a party supporter.
"Unethical actions are definitely a hot button for voters," said Duff Conacher, co-founder of Democracy Watch. "I think it will cause him to lose voter support as a result."
The last Liberal government, ousted in 2006, was tarnished by a sponsorship scandal involving corruption and misdirection of funds to supporters in Quebec.
In a bid to reconnect with voters, Trudeau scrapped a trip to this week's World Economic Forum in Davos and embarked on a cross-country tour instead.
"I think the tour is too little too late," said Conacher.
In the letter, Dawson acknowledged concerns about potential breaches related to the use of the private helicopter, as well as Trudeau's acceptance of the trip in light of the Aga Khan Foundation's lobbying of the government.
Ethics rules introduced by Trudeau in 2015 bar government ministers from taking private flights without getting Dawson's approval.
A Trudeau spokesman said the prime minister will answer any of Dawson's questions. A spokeswoman for the ethics commissioner did not immediately comment.
Trudeau is facing a separate probe into fundraising by his Liberal Party, but an examination into the trip would be the first such investigation of a prime minister, said Conacher.
Aga Khan is the title held by the leader of the Ismaili branch of Shi'ite Islam. The current Aga Khan, Prince Shah Karim Al Husseini, is a Trudeau family friend.
The Aga Khan Foundation Canada is a registered lobbyist with the government and executives met with government officials as recently as December.
(Reporting by Leah Schnurr; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Alan Crosby)