As the second wave of COVID-19 rages across Canada, two politicians have been busted for taking holiday vacations to tropical destinations, even as their constituents are being urged to stay home.
Ontario’s Finance Minister Rod Phillips said Tuesday that he “deeply regrets” taking a vacation to the Carribean island of Saint Barthélemy with his wife earlier this month, while Pierre Arcand, former interim leader of the Quebec Liberal Party, and his wife flew down to Barbados on Christmas day.
Quebec and Ontario are the Canadian provinces hit hardest by the pandemic in Canada. Quebec has had over 197,000 cases and over 8,000 deaths and Ontario has had 179,000 cases with almost 4,500 deaths. Ontario is currently in a lockdown that severely limits residents’ ability to see other people.
Canadians have been advised by the federal government to avoid all non-essential international travel since early in the pandemic.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford told VICE World News in a statement he's not happy with Phillips.
“At a time when every Ontarian has been asked to make sacrifices, I am extremely disappointed in Minister Phillips and his decision to travel abroad,” said Ford.
“I have let the minister know that his decision to travel is completely unacceptable and that it will not be tolerated again—by him or any member of our cabinet and caucus. I have also told the minister I need him back in the country immediately.”
It’s unclear when Ford found out Phillips, his most-important cabinet minister, was out of the country. Phillips said he was working from home while abroad since December 13 and participated in cabinet committee calls.
Ontario’s NDP opposition leader, Andrea Horwath, has called for Phillips to be removed from cabinet.
Ford did not respond to questions regarding if Phillips would face any disciplinary action. His office has said the premier was not aware of Phillips' travels. In a statement, Phillips said the trip was “a mistake and I apologize.”
“I am making arrangements to return to Ontario immediately and will begin a 14-day quarantine as soon as I arrive,” he said in a statement two weeks after his trip began.
Phillips confirmed he and his wife travelled to St. Barts, a location beloved by the rich and famous, on December 13. He said he would have stayed home if he was aware of the lockdown, which was put in place on December 26, but announced by his government on December 21. It’s unclear when Phillips had originally planned to return. Toronto Mayor John Tory, who has been urging Torontonians to stay at home over the holidays, said Phillips (a longtime friend) made a mistake but that Ontarians are “lucky to have him.”
"He made a mistake in this instance which he has owned up to,” said Tory. “It's one of those things where it's very unfortunate but at the end of the day I think he has learned a lesson from it.”
Arcand, who represents Mont-Royal–Outremont in Quebec’s National Assembly, told the Canadian Press that Barbados is “one of the safest places in the world” but has said he regrets his decision to travel to the country. Recently Quebec Premier François Legault has attempted to dissuade Quebecers from travelling, even going as far to suggest that the federal government should crack down on Canadians travelling abroad.
"It's not the time, even if it's allowed, to go south," said Legault at a press conference on December 22. “Going to an all-inclusive club in Punta Cana or Cancun, with buffets, where people stand close to one another, is certainly not desirable at this time.”
Despite having left the country two weeks ago, Phillips’s social media account has been posting photos and video showing Phillips taking part in a variety of socially-distanced holiday activities. On Christmas Eve, Phillips’s account posted a video showing him sitting in front of a fire in a pristine living room with a glass of eggnog by his side.
“Now I know that this Christmas is a bit different than Christmases in the past. We’re meeting virtually and online and not able to be in person with as many family and friends as we would like to,” Phillips says in the video. “I would like to thank each and every one of you for what we are doing to protect our most vulnerable while we celebrate this very special but challenging holiday tradition.”
Although the photos and video were released in an attempt to make it seem like Phillips was home for the holidays, he is wearing the same clothes in all of them. Phillips’ office has confirmed that all of these were taken and filmed prior to December 13 and posted later.
The situation has sparked outrage, with some saying Phillips's actions are indicative of Ford's government's mishandling of the pandemic. Others are saying that it's a showcase of “do as I say, not as I do” politics.
“Seeing politicians travel to St. Barts when Ontario just had a day with a record # of #COVID19 cases, hospitalizations & ICU admissions, is the epitome of privilege. It is a slap in the face of every frontline health worker who has risked their life daily during this pandemic,” tweeted Ontario-based palliative care physician Dr. Naheed Dosani.
Meanwhile confused right-wing American commentators, who don't realize Phillips is a conservative politician, are attacking him as a liberal.
While Canada has received shipments of COVID-19 vaccines, its rollout of inoculations has been slow. Canada has administered 71,000 doses, but is far behind countries like Israel and Bahrain and is immunizing people at a quarter of the speed of the United States.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.