Snowbird Scandal Forces Out Sun-Seeking Canadian Politicians
(Bloomberg) -- Hopping on a plane to take a break from winter is a Canadian ritual. Suddenly, though, it’s become a mistake that’s upending the careers of politicians.
Three provincial ministers, including Ontario’s finance chief, were forced to resign from cabinet in the last week after they were called out for jetting to balmy destinations over the holidays, in defiance of their governments’ guidelines to stay home because of Covid-19. About a dozen more public officials who traveled abroad have been accused of ethical breaches, with some losing their parliamentary titles, including two members of Justin Trudeau’s government.
“We’ve been very clear. No one should be vacationing abroad right now,” Trudeau said Tuesday at a news conference in Ottawa. “One of the things that has been really, really important throughout this pandemic for Canadians is the sense that we are all in this together.” He said people traveling outside the country would be ineligible for a C$1,000 ($780) government benefit aimed at those who have to self-isolate.
Canada’s travel rules are strict by the standards of most western countries. Borders are closed to the vast majority of foreigners, and a 14-day quarantine on arrival has slowed airline traffic. Canadian authorities have discouraged non-essential travel out of the country, though it isn’t banned.
Faced with a surge of infections that threatened to overwhelm hospitals as the holidays neared in December, several provinces sent their economies back into stricter lockdowns and asked people to sacrifice family gatherings for the greater good.
“I’m the guy who’s stealing Christmas to keep you safe,” Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister said in an emotional news conference, summing up mood across the country.
Most Canadians hunkered down over the holiday. Then came the evidence that some were doing quite the opposite.
The Journal de Montreal newspaper dispatched a reporter to an all-inclusive resort in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, who found Quebec tourists hanging out mask-free and sharing drinks and cigarettes.
That article and similar reports sent the French-speaking province into a frenzy. They stoked fears that travelers would bring back the virus, in a repeat of the ill-timed March school break that officials blame for Quebec’s death toll -- 8,379 deaths, the most in Canada.
Next door in Ontario, travel became a political scandal when it was revealed that Finance Minister Rod Phillips was on vacation in plush Saint Barthelemy after his government imposed a widespread shutdown of businesses. Making the matter worse, Phillips had released pre-recorded messages on Twitter that gave the impression he was still in the country. He resigned Dec. 31.
In Saskatchewan, a minister who’d traveled to California resigned from cabinet Monday.
The anger has been particularly acute in Alberta, where Premier Jason Kenney’s had already been criticized for being slow to act against a surge of infections. On Monday, Kenney took disciplinary action against his chief of staff and six lawmakers. That included the municipal affairs minister, Tracy Allard, who stepped down after she traveled to Hawaii and was nicknamed “Aloha Allard” by some constituents.
“Millions of Albertans have made real sacrifices over the past 10 months to help keep each other safe,” Kenney said in a statement. “They are right to be angry about people in positions of leadership vacationing outside of the country.”
Tens of thousands of Canadians flee harsh winters for the southern U.S., Mexico and other warm destinations every year, with some so-called snowbirds spending the entire winter there. Such travel has declined by about 70% this winter, according to the Canadian Snowbird Association, an advocacy group for travelers.
“We’re all tired of Covid. Morale is cracking in places and people are breaking the law,” said Richard Johnston, political science professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia. It’s “infuriating” to voters to hear public officials tell them to avoid social gatherings and travel “and then the people who are making these regulations are breaking the very regulations they made,” he said.
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