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OTTAWA - Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau remained under fire Monday for taking hefty speaking fees from charitable groups after becoming an MP, despite promising to pay back any organization that was dissatisfied.
The Conservatives maintained Trudeau should never have accepted any money from any charity — before or after becoming an MP.
And they expanded the definition of a charity to include all non-profit groups, universities, municipalities and other public sector organizations.
"What is it about the ethical standard of giving money to charities rather than taking money from charities that he does not understand?" queried Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore in the Commons.
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair didn't go quite so far.
But he said Trudeau should return "every penny" paid by all charitable and non-profit groups since he was elected in 2008 — not just those who ask for their money back.
So far, only one charity, the Grace Foundation in New Brunswick, has asked Trudeau to give back his fee, claiming it lost money on an event aimed at raising funds for a seniors' home last year.
"I think it's a mistake for a sitting member of Parliament to be accepting money from a charity to do what is essentially part of your job, which is to talk to Canadians about your priorities and how you see things unfold," Mulcair said outside the Commons.
The Conservatives circulated documents Monday showing that Trudeau headlined three fundraising events — for the University of Guelph, Georgian College in Barrie, Ont,. and a business dinner put on by the Ontario municipality of Chatham Kent — that lost money. All three were in 2006 — two years before Trudeau was first elected.
Conservatives insisted there was no distinction between events before and after he became an MP.
"As someone in public life, as he was prior to 2008, that he would take funds off their backs, knowing that they're losing money on an event that he professed to make a success, it just seems wrong," said Tory MP Patrick Brown, who represents Barrie.
Mulcair, however, said what Trudeau did before he was elected is "completely his own private business."
During the Liberal leadership race, Trudeau voluntarily disclosed all sources of personal income, including a $1.2 million inheritance from his late father, former prime minister Pierre Trudeau.
Justin Trudeau revealed that he'd earned more than $1.3 million on the public speaking circuit since 2006, including $277,000 from 17 groups in the four years after winning election as an MP in 2008. He stopped accepting fees in June 2012, once he began seriously contemplating a leadership bid for the Liberal party.
The 17 groups included a mix of educational, professional and charitable groups.
Trudeau reiterated Monday that he intends to contact each of those groups to see if they feel they got their money's worth.
"I will be happy to pay them back personally if they are dissatisfied," he said.
Indeed, he said he's open to reimbursing groups which actually made money from his events but wouldn't mind pocketing the speaking fee all the same.
"I will talk with them about anything that they want to do. I am open. What I am demonstrating here is a level of openness and transparency, accountability that has never been seen before on this Parliament."
Trudeau referred to himself repeatedly as a "professional fundraiser," someone whose high profile helped draw crowds and boost ticket sales for fundraising events. And he suggested the Conservatives don't understand fundraising techniques if they think no one should ever get paid for helping charities raise money.
"I think that might be an interesting conversation to have with the caterers who provide the food to banquet halls who are raising money for charities," he said.
"I mean, the Conservatives are so focused on attack and negativity that perhaps they're not thinking about the consequences in the charitable sector of what they're doing."
A number of Conservative senators are on the public speaking circuit as well, including Jacques Demers, Larry Smith and Nancy Greene Raine. Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin, now embroiled in the Senate expenses scandal, also used to be on the circuit.
Indeed, Wallin has admitted to accepting a fee to speak to a municipalities association — a group the Tories would now qualify as a charity — after being appointed to the Senate. She's said that speaking engagement was scheduled before her appointment and she has not accepted fees for speeches since.
Demers and Smith did not respond to questions about what type of groups have paid them to make speeches.
Green Raine said she thinks she's made only one paid speech since becoming a senator. She said she's never accepted a fee for speaking at a fundraising event for a charity.
"If you support the cause, support it by donating your time," she said in an interview.
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall last week asked Trudeau to reimburse the $20,000 fee he charged to speak at a literacy conference in Saskatoon last year. However, Global-TV reported Monday that the group doesn't want the money back and that it feels the event was a success.
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