Former Trudeau Foundation head says engaging with Chinese officials was 'naïve'

·4 min read
Morris Rosenberg, the former president and CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, appears before a Commons committee on May 2, 2023. (Benoit Roussel/CBC - image credit)
Morris Rosenberg, the former president and CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, appears before a Commons committee on May 2, 2023. (Benoit Roussel/CBC - image credit)

Morris Rosenberg, the former president and CEO of the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, says in retrospect the embattled charity was naïve to think it would have "soft power" over China when it accepted money in 2016 with ties to the Chinese government.

The former veteran public servant told a parliamentary committee Tuesday night that, at the time, there was a belief that engaging with Chinese officials would familiarize them with Canadian governance, rule of law and human rights.

"Was that naïve at the time? In hindsight, probably it was naive," said Rosenberg.

"We felt we could do more good."

The access to information, privacy and ethics committee has been investigating whether a promise of $200,000 to the foundation, which funds and promotes academic and public interest research, was part of an influence campaign by the Chinese government to get to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

WATCH | Rosenberg testifies at committee:

The donation was attributed originally to two Chinese businessmen, Zhang Bin and Niu Gensheng. It was later reported that the payment was made from Bin's company Millennium Golden Eagle International.

The China Cultural Industry Association says Millennium Golden Eagle International is one of its executive board members and was created with the approval of China's Culture Ministry.

NDP MP Matthew Green asked Rosenberg if he thinks the foundation would have gotten the donation if it didn't share a name with the prime minister.

"It's not that we were naïve that we were dealing with people that were linked to the Chinese government, because just about everybody was. What we were naïve about was that we actually believed by dealing with them, that we would have soft power influence on them," said Rosenberg.

That answer seemed to baffle Green.

"I've been pretty neutral until that comment," said the New Democrat. "Because that has a level of hubris that I think is the challenge that this foundation is facing, quite frankly, that has gotten us into this mess."

During another exchange, Conservative MP Michael Cooper asked why no red flags were raised within the foundation.

"One of two things are possible. Either you're completely incompetent or you were willfully blind. There is nothing in your record to indicate you're incompetent. The only conclusion is you were willfully blind," said Cooper, eliciting cries of outrage from others in the room.

The chair of the committee, Conservative John Brassard, called for decorum.

Trudeau's brother testifying Wednesday

In the end, the foundation said it received $140,000 and tried to return it, only to hit a roadblock. On April 14, sources with knowledge of the situation told Radio-Canada that the money had finally been deposited into the account of one of the two businessmen.

The foundation's CEO and most of its board of directors resigned last month, saying the politicization of the donations was impeding the scholarship organization's independent, non-partisan work.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has told reporters repeatedly he has not been involved in the foundation's activities for nearly a decade.

Opposition Conservatives have argued the foundation that bears Trudeau's name has been used by individuals to court favour with the prime minister and those close to him.

His brother Alexandre Trudeau, who is involved in the foundation, is scheduled to testify Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters in New York City, the prime minister said his brother has been involved in the foundation for years and will answer the questions MPs ask of him.

"It's my brother," he said. "I love him very much but he does his things and I do mine."

The debate over foreign interference led to a dustup in the House of Commons earlier Tuesday.

Calls for emergency debate 

Conservative House leader Andrew Scheer rose to request an emergency debate on foreign interference after the Globe and Mail, citing a top-secret document and an anonymous national security source, reported Monday that China's intelligence service sought to target Conservative MP Michael Chong and his family.

Anthony Rota, the Speaker of the House, denied the request, which apparently infuriated Conservative Leader Pierre Poilivre. He pointed at Rota and voiced his disapproval with the Speaker's decision.

Rota tried to call the House to order. "Does the leader of the opposition have something to say to the chair?" Rota asked before giving Polievre the floor.

WATCH | PM reacts to brother appearing at committee:

"Actually he does have something to say. I think it's outrageous," Poilievre said before his mic was cut off.

Rota said he wasn't going to get into a debate and threatened the Conservative leader with expulsion if he continued.

After a few more exchanges, Rota said his reason for denying Scheer's request was a technical one. While he said the issue was "serious," Rota noted that the Speaker needs to consider if there will be an opportunity to hold a similar debate in the near future before allowing an emergency debate.

Rota suggested the Conservatives' opposition day on Thursday would be thr right time for such a debate to be held.