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Trudeau should offer better explanation for meeting Boyle, otherwise he looks ‘foolish,’ House should launch review of PMO screening process, say political players

By Abbas Rana      

Opposition parties vow to raise questions about Justin Trudeau’s meeting with Joshua Boyle when Parliament returns.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured last month on the Hill, should reveal all the facts surrounding his now controversial meeting with former Afghan captive Joshua Boyle last month on the Hill because without a clear explanation the prime minister looks “foolish,” say political players, who also say the House should launch an inquiry to review the PMO's screening process.
The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau should reveal all the facts surrounding his now controversial meeting with former Afghan captive Joshua Boyle last month on the Hill because without a clear explanation the prime minister looks “foolish,” say political players, who also say the House should launch an inquiry to review the PMO’s screening process.

“I don’t know how someone with a clearly worrisome record was able to get into the Prime Minister’s Office, it’s hard for many, many Canadians to get five minutes with the prime minister,” said NDP MP Nathan Cullen (Skeena-Bulkley Valley, B.C.) in an interview. “How Mr. Boyle was permitted into the inner confines of the Prime Minister’s Office is worrisome to me. It calls into question their screening process for anybody who is getting face-to-face time with the prime minister. I don’t understand how it happened, and I don’t understand what his motivation was in meeting with Mr. Boyle.”

Mr. Boyle, 34, and his American wife Caitlan Coleman, 31, who got married in 2011, were abducted in Afghanistan by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network. They were backpacking in the war-ravaged country at the time of their abduction in 2012. The couple had three children during their five-year captivity. They were rescued in October following a raid by the Pakistani Armed Forces.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, pictured on Dec. 18, 2017, in his Parliament Hill office with Joshua Boyle, Mr. Boyle’s wife Caitlin Coleman and their children. Mr. Boyle tweeted this photo along a few others on Dec. 19. He was charged on Dec. 30. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

Prior to marrying Ms. Coleman, Mr. Boyle was married to Zaynab Khadr, daughter of Egyptian-Canadian Ahmad Khadr, an al-Qaeda financier with links to Osama bin Laden who was killed in a shootout with the Pakistani forces near the Afghanistan border in 2003.

Mr. Boyle was charged on Dec. 30, 13 days after his meeting with the prime minister, by the Ottawa Police on 15 criminal charges of assault, sexual assault, illegal confinement, uttering threats and public mischief. The alleged offences are said to have taken place between Oct. 13 and Dec. 30 after the family returned to Canada. None of the charges has been proven in court. Mr. Boyle is scheduled to appear in the Ottawa courthouse on Jan. 15 via videoconference. A publication ban prevents the alleged victims from being identified.

The family met with Mr. Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) on Dec. 18 in the prime minister’s Parliament Hill office on the request of Mr. Boyle. There were no official PMO photos released and the meeting was not publicized, but it became public after Mr. Boyle tweeted photos of the meeting.

Asked last week by Halifax radio 95.7 FM host Sheldon MacLeod if he regretted meeting with Mr. Boyle, the prime minister said: “We’ve been very, very active on consular cases. We’ve had a number of successes in bringing people who were stuck in difficult situations overseas home, bringing them to safety, and the engagement which my office has directly with those cases has led me to meet with a number of people who have been released,” he said.

“So these kinds of things are something that I do. I always try to defer to meeting with more people rather than fewer people, and particularly people for whom we’ve been working hard over the past years. I think that’s something that’s important to do.”

Asked if the meeting showed a lack of judgment on his part or bad advice from his PMO staff, Mr. Trudeau said he followed all applicable advice. “We make sure we follow all the advice that our security professionals and intelligence agencies give us and that’s exactly what we did in this case,” Mr. Trudeau told Halifax’s 95.7 FM.

But the prime minister’s judgment is being questioned by pundits, politicians, and political insiders who are still questioning the motivation for meeting with the family. They have also raised questions about the screening process in place for people who meet with the prime minister.

NDP MP Nathan Cullen. The Hill Times photograph by Andrew Meade

“I don’t know what the motivation was? What was this serving exactly in the prime minister’s agenda, I have no idea. [It’s] truly hard to get time with the prime minister but not if you are somebody who is like Mr. Boyle, apparently,” said Mr. Cullen.

“It’s a judgment thing. What judgment does the prime minister have? What judgment his key staff has with regards to who comes in the door. I just don’t know how they’ve been silent on this.”

Nelson Wiseman, a University of Toronto political science professor, agreed.

“The only reason the prime minister meets people is because he thinks of two reasons, off the top of my head: it can advance Canadian interests or burnish his image, like he wants to be seen with popular people like Bono and Paul Martin did,” Prof. Wiseman said.

“In this case, was it in Canada’s interest to meet with him [Mr. Boyle]? I don’t know what was the interest involved here?”

Prof. Wiseman said that without any proper explanation from the PMO, the incident is reflecting poorly on the prime minister’s judgment.

“He now looks foolish,” Prof. Wiseman said. “It now looks like bad judgment that he was ill-informed, or misinformed, or uninformed. Any of those, all of those things, I don’t know which one. It could be a combination.”

The PMO has not released any details publicly surrounding the meeting, first citing privacy, and later saying the case is before the courts.

Chantal Gagnon, press secretary to the prime minister, provided the same response that the prime minister did in his media interviews last week and declined to say if the PMO has launched any investigation.

“As always, we simply do not comment on any matters relating to PM’s security,” Ms. Gagnon wrote in her email.

Pollster Nik Nanos of Nanos Research said the meeting does not appear to be a case of “lapse of judgment” on the part of Mr. Trudeau, but it looks like a case of “lapse of process.” He said it’s unlikely the prime minister would meet someone like Mr. Boyle had he known about his background.

“This is probably more a lapse in process, than a lapse in judgment,” said Mr. Nanos. “It would be hard to believe that the prime minister would knowingly and purposefully meet any individual whose background was questionable.”

He said the right course of action now for the Liberals to fix this mistake is first to acknowledge it and later put in place processes that would ensure this kind of incident wouldn’t happen again.

Conservative political insider Tim Powers described Mr. Trudeau as an “empathetic” man, but said it appears that by successfully seeking a meeting with Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Boyle seems to have used Mr. Trudeau, which is not good optics for the prime minister. So, he said, the PMO should release more information about why this meeting was granted to someone who was under police investigation and later charged for alleged criminal offences.

“For their own purposes, they need to do that to have people have a better understanding of why this took place,” said Mr. Powers, vice chairman of Summa Strategies. “If you’re the prime minister, you don’t want to be used in that manner, and Joshua Boyle, arguably, tweeting as he did and showing those images was given the opportunity and took advantage of the prime minister to do that and that’s worrisome.”

Conservative MP Erin O’Toole (Durham, Ont.), his party’s foreign affairs critic, declined a comment saying the issue is before the courts.

Conservative MP Peter Kent (Thornhill, Ont.), in an interview with The Hill Times, also declined a comment but said the issue will be raised in the Question Period when the House resumes sitting on Jan. 29.

Conservative MP Peter Kent says his party will raise the issue of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s meeting with Joshua Boyle in the Question Period when Parliament returns later this month. The Hill Times file photo.

“We will be discussing that in the House of Commons with the prime minister in Question Period. Don’t want to comment on it now while it’s before the courts,” said Mr. Kent.

Mr. Cullen also said the NDP will ask questions in Question Period when the House returns.

Meanwhile, prior to Mr. Trudeau’s meeting with Mr. Boyle, the prime minister was on the receiving end of the criticism for vacationing along with family and friends at the Aga Khan’s private island in Bahamas in late 2016. Last month, Ethics and Conflict of Interest Commissioner Mary Dawson said in her report that by vacationing at the billionaire Ismaili Muslims’ spiritual leader’s island, Mr. Trudeau contravened the federal ethics act. Mr. Trudeau is the first prime minister who has been found in breach of the act, which came into effect in 2006, under then-prime minister Stephen Harper.

All political insiders interviewed for this article said that polls in the last few weeks have not shown any negative reaction for Mr. Trudeau meeting with Mr. Boyle and breaching the act. But, they said, it could become a problem for the Liberals if the opposition parties kept on hammering the Liberals on these two issues.

“I see these issues as future political risks, not necessarily political risks today,” said Mr. Nanos. “If you think politics is a ledger entry, things are starting to add up. Once people start focussing on the next federal election, that’s when we’re going to have a full understanding of how much of a negative impact these things will have.”

The Hill Times 

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