OTTAWA — The finance minister of Ontario was the first to go, forced to resign after it was revealed he’d spent much of December in the Caribbean — even as he praised other Canadians for staying safe at home.
“I know that this Christmas is a bit different than Christmases in the past,” the minister, Rod Phillips, said in a heavily produced video tweeted on Christmas Eve. Clad in a sweater and sitting by a roaring fire with a cup of eggnog, he thanked everyone for “what we’re doing to protect our most vulnerable.” What Phillips neglected to add was that he was in tony St. Barts, failing to follow his own advice.
It was the start of a series of resignations and demotions as federal and provincial politicians across Canada owned up to Christmastime trips — travel at a time when they’d advised Canadians to stay home and limit their contacts as Covid-19 cases soar. Members of Canada’s Parliament, provincial ministers and staffers from the Alberta government all started 2021 with reassignments and apologies.
“No one should be vacationing abroad right now,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday during a press conference outside his home.
The holiday sojourns ran the gamut from lounging in tropical locales to visiting sick and dying relatives, but few of those politicians have emerged unscathed.
The political firestorm comes with North America nearing 10 months of lockdowns and with pandemic fatigue now a part of daily life. The Canadian scandals smack of the backlash heaped upon California Gov. Gavin Newsom in November after dining at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant with 11 people from different households, all while he was discouraging residents from gathering for the holidays.
Tales of politicians of all ideological stripes heading south for the winter, even just for a few days, are also stoking fears that instead of setting an example for constituents, they’ve encouraged them to let down their guard as the coronavirus reaches new heights.
If a small percentage of Canadians in a given area decide to skirt pandemic-related rules against social gatherings and the like, “those are real consequences that could play themselves out if people get fed up and find the messenger has no credibility,” said Conservative strategist Tim Powers.
The ongoing controversy also spotlights the dichotomy between pleas for Canadians to hunker down and moves by the tourism industry and places like Alberta to encourage some level of “safe travel.”
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney initially declined to punish members of his party and staff after news of their travel was revealed. He pointed out that his government’s pandemic approach to protecting “lives and livelihoods” included the travel sector.
The province was the first to launch a pilot program to screen international travelers for Covid in exchange for a truncated quarantine period. Last month, Alberta was the first to introduce a testing program for Hawaii-bound vacationers flying Air Canada or WestJet — a Calgary-based airline — to avoid the state’s mandatory quarantine.
Municipal Affairs Minister Tracy Allard, Calgary-Klein MLA Jeremy Nixon and two education ministry press aides vacationed in Hawaii, while other politicians traveled to Mexico and the lower 48 in December. Kenney’s chief of staff flew to the United Kingdom and returned via the U.S., after Ottawa banned flights from the country to try to stem the spread of a more infectious coronavirus variant.
The premier said he took responsibility for not expressly prohibiting travel abroad for senior government officials. “I do not believe that I can sanction people who complied with the law, with the public health orders, and who in fact participated in the kind of safe travel that our government has facilitated,” Kenney said on Jan. 1.
But his defense rang hollow to Canadians of all political persuasions, including fellow conservatives. By Monday, Allard, Nixon and Kenney’s top aide — among other government officials — stepped down from leadership roles.
“This isn’t about intellect — it’s about emotion,” Powers said.
“The big deal is not the travel,” Danielle Smith, former leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Party, said Monday on her radio show. “The big deal is the travel in order to skirt around all of the other restrictions that have been put in place in Alberta,” such as on visiting family and restaurants.
Indeed, Allard’s initial statements apologizing for her travel acknowledged that the Hawaii vacation was a family tradition — the type of event many Canadians decided to put on hold in 2020.
Not all of the trips that have come to light were for leisure. Still, the reasons for them — sick relatives, funerals, repairs on second homes — are ones many Canadians have either opted out of or haven’t been allowed to do thanks to interprovincial and international travel restrictions.
Americans with ill family members in Canada have faced inconsistencies at the border with respect to whether they are considered “essential” travelers. Only in October did Ottawa establish a process for foreign nationals to apply to enter on “compassionate” grounds, such as to visit a dying loved one.
Two Liberal MPs, Kamal Khera and Sameer Zuberi, traveled to the U.S. in December to attend a memorial service and to visit a sick relative, respectively. Both have since stepped down from leadership and committee roles in Parliament. MP Niki Ashton of the New Democratic Party lost her role as her party’s transportation critic after failing to notify leader Jagmeet Singh that she was flying to Greece to see her sick grandmother.
Conservative MP David Sweet resigned his chair role on the House of Commons ethics committee on Monday night and announced he would not seek reelection after disclosing a recent trip to the U.S. Conservative MP Ron Liepert admitted to traveling to his California home for “essential house maintenance issues,” though he doesn’t appear to be facing repercussions from Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole.
While some of those parliamentarians may have had good reasons to travel abroad, Powers said, “rationality has been replaced by rage” against politicians who have espoused one set of rules for Canadians that they then don’t follow.
“We live in an age where outrage takes hold and the mob comes after you,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how legitimate your reason — the mob’s going to take you down.”
Now, government leaders across Canada must wait to see whether the backlash against the politicians who did travel over the holidays leads to more Canadians bucking public health advice and venturing beyond their homes and workplaces. Trudeau pleaded with Canadians Tuesday to stay the course, despite their frustrations with jet-setting government leaders.
“We can’t let the sacrifices we’ve made over the holidays, and over the last 10 months, go to waste,” Trudeau said.
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