OTTAWA — The CEO and most members of the board of directors for the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation said Tuesday they are stepping down because of the political climate surrounding their work in recent months.
In a statement posted on its website, the foundation said the politicization of a donation it received seven years ago has put a great deal of pressure on its management, volunteer board of directors and staff.
The Globe and Mail newspaper reported in late February that Chinese billionaire Zhang Bin and another Chinese businessman, Niu Gensheng, donated $200,000 to the foundation in 2016. Citing an unnamed national security source, the newspaper reported that Zhang was instructed by Beijing to donate $1 million in honour of the elder Trudeau in 2014.
A press release from the China Cultural Industry Association at the time of the donation said the money was given to honour Pierre Trudeau, who established diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China in 1970.
The foundation, which describes itself as independent and non-partisan, said last month that it was returning the money because of a potential connection between the donation and the Chinese government.
"We cannot keep any donation that may have been sponsored by a foreign government and would not knowingly do so," said the foundation's president and CEO, Pascale Fournier, at the time when the donation was returned.
The foundation's statement on Tuesday said three directors will stay with the organization on an interim basis to ensure it can continue to meet its obligations.
"The circumstances created by the politicization of the foundation have made it impossible to continue with the status quo, and the volunteer board of directors has resigned, as has the president and CEO," the statement said.
The foundation runs a three-year scholarship program for doctoral students at Canadian universities, providing them with funding, mentorship and language training throughout their studies.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he stepped back from the Trudeau Foundation years ago. The charity has previously said his formal involvement ended in 2014, about a year after he was elected Liberal leader.
"Those people who are trying to get short-term political gain by increasing polarization and partisanship in this country by launching completely unfounded, and ungrounded attacks against charities or foundations must not succeed," Trudeau told reporters Tuesday in Toronto when asked about the resignations.
"I have no doubt that the Trudeau Foundation, like foundations and charities that Conservative politicians have attacked in the past, will continue to do the excellent work that it will do."
The Liberal government has been under increasing pressure to respond to reports that China has attempted to interfere in Canadian affairs after a series of stories published by the Globe and Mail and Global News.
Members of a parliamentary committee are pressing for information about when Trudeau was briefed about Beijing's attempted interference in the 2019 and 2021 federal elections.
Opposition MPs have sent a letter to the clerk of the Privy Council requesting the information, saying they want those details before the prime minister's chief of staff, Katie Telford, testifies on Friday.
Meanwhile, the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians and the National Security and Intelligence Review Agency are investigating claims of Chinese meddling in recent elections.
Trudeau has also appointed David Johnston as a special rapporteur to investigate foreign interference.
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre accused Trudeau and Johnston of being too close, and pointed out that the former governor general was a member of the Trudeau Foundation.
Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet again Tuesday called on Trudeau to revoke Johnston's mandate and launch a public inquiry.
"Leave it to Parliament next week to choose one or more commissioners who will chair the commission of inquiry into Chinese interference in the Canadian democratic process," he said in a statement in French.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh echoed the calls for a public inquiry when speaking to reporters Tuesday.
"The Liberals and Conservatives are playing a political game to win points rather than really targeting how important this is and finding solutions," he said in French.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 11, 2023.
— With files from Mickey Djuric
David Fraser, The Canadian Press