Doug Ford said he knew that Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips was outside of the country before it became public on Tuesday and takes responsibility for not ordering him back to the province.
The Premier said on Wednesday that he was aware about two weeks ago of the minister’s sojourn to the Caribbean island of St. Barts.
Mr. Ford said Mr. Phillips did not tell “anyone” he was leaving. But the Premier said he called Mr. Phillips shortly after the minister arrived and asked where he was, and the minister told him he was away.
Mr. Ford said he should have told Mr. Phillips to “get your backside back into Ontario,” but he didn’t. The Premier said he is upset and frustrated by the situation and said the minister is expected to be back in Ontario on Thursday.
Mr. Phillips took his trip despite months of advisories from federal and provincial governments urging against travel. Non-essential trips are further in the spotlight as a more contagious variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 makes its way around the globe.
Justin Trudeau has not travelled internationally during the pandemic, the Prime Minister’s Office said Wednesday. The PMO would not comment on Mr. Phillips’s travel.
Mr. Phillips apologized Tuesday evening, saying that he deeply regretted travelling to the luxury island.
The minister’s office confirmed on Wednesday that he also travelled for personal reasons to Switzerland in August, and that he quarantined upon his return.
On Tuesday, Mr. Phillips said that if he and his wife had been aware of the eventual Dec. 26 provincewide shutdown, they would have cancelled the trip. He said he continued his daily work as Finance Minister and MPP for Ajax, including digital calls and meetings. The timing means Mr. Phillips would have helped negotiate the shutdown from his vacation spot.
While Mr. Phillips was in St. Barts, his staff posted pre-recorded material on his social-media accounts, showing the minister attending events in Ontario. On Dec. 24, a tweet from his account described the “sacrifices” Canadians are making this Christmas. Mr. Phillips’s staff also tweeted a pre-recorded video of the minister sitting by the fire, sipping eggnog, and wishing viewers a Merry Christmas.
Mr. Ford was asked on Wednesday if his Finance Minister deceived Canadians with his behaviour on social media. The Premier called it “unacceptable” and said he is concerned about the posts. “But we’ll address it, I can guarantee the people of Ontario. We’re going to have a tough conversation when he gets back.”
Conrad Winn, a political-science professor at Carleton University, said if the Premier doesn’t fire or demote Mr. Phillips, he and his government will lose credibility.
“When politicians behave as this man did in an unscrupulous, misleading way, it contributes further to a decline in the confidence of democracy, which is a bad thing,” Mr. Winn said.
Ontario NDP Leader Andrea Horwath urged Mr. Ford to kick Mr. Phillips out of cabinet “because of his lack of judgment and lack of honesty.”
Ms. Horwath said in a statement that while the government has demanded sacrifice from Ontarians, Mr. Phillips ignored advice, jetted off to St. Barts and created “an elaborate cover-up on social media.”
Liberal MPP Stephen Blais released a letter addressed to Mr. Ford, saying it is a long-established practice that ministers notify the Premier’s Office of all out of province travel.
Mr. Ford’s office has not responded to questions from The Globe about the process for caucus members seeking to travel internationally.
The Globe contacted premiers and cabinet ministers in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec, as well as the PMO and ministers at the federal level, to ask about travel history in the first and second wave of the pandemic.
A spokesperson for B.C. Premier John Horgan co-ordinated minister replies in that province and confirmed that none had travelled out of the country since March 18. Ministers in Manitoba also replied through one spokesperson that they had not travelled abroad since March 18.
The Globe had not received a response from any ministers in Alberta.
Two ministers in Saskatchewan said they had travelled internationally during the second wave, Joe Hargrave and Christine Tell. A spokesperson said Ms. Tell was in California between Oct. 30 and Nov. 9 visiting a close family member who was very ill with a non-COVID-19-related illness.
Mr. Hargrave is in California on a personal business matter.
More than half of the cabinet ministers in Ontario replied, including the offices of Caroline Mulroney, Vic Fedeli and Stephen Lecce. So far, none have said they travelled out of the country since March 18. The Globe also asked the provincial NDP and Liberals about their caucus member’s travel since the onset of the pandemic, including over the holidays.
A spokesperson for the Ontario Liberal Party said MPP Michael Coteau travelled to Britain to be with his mother in the days before her passing during the fall, and self-isolated for the required 14 days upon his return. A spokesperson for the Ontario NDP said the party is not aware of any MPPs travelling abroad during the holidays.
In Quebec, a spokesperson said Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Youri Chassin is in Peru to be with his spouse, whom he has not seen for nearly a year. The trip is to resolve immigration issues. Liberal MNA Pierre Arcand is being criticized over his decision to vacation in the Caribbean.
Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister’s office said no cabinet ministers have travelled.
Federally, nine ministers’ offices replied, including the offices of Carolyn Bennett, Marc Garneau and Dominic LeBlanc. A spokesperson said the government is not aware of any Liberal MPs travelling outside the country during the holidays.
The Globe is still waiting to hear from 83 cabinet ministers at both the provincial and federal level.
Opposition Leader Erin O’Toole’s office said he has not been out of the country since the federal government advised against unnecessary travel.
Chelsea Tucker, a spokesperson for Mr. O’Toole, said he has emphasized the necessity for caucus members to follow public-health guidance, including travel advisories, and it is his office’s understanding that all caucus members have done so.
Federal NDP whip Rachel Blaney said the party’s MPs were asked to stay home and do their best to follow public-health advice. A spokesperson said the party is fairly confident that no MPs have travelled internationally since the onset of the pandemic, but have not been able to confirm with every MP.
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