Ontario finance minister says he's returning home as news of Caribbean vacation sparks anger

·6 min read
Ontario finance minister says he's returning home as news of Caribbean vacation sparks anger

Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips says he'll return home after news that he travelled to a Caribbean island for a personal vacation amid the COVID-19 pandemic sparked public anger.

On Tuesday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford said he was "extremely disappointed" that Philips had travelled despite repeated calls for Ontarians to stay home amid rising case counts of the novel coronavirus.

The trip comes at a time when Ontario residents have been asked to make sacrifices, Ford said.

"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," Ford said in the statement on Tuesday evening.

"I have also told the minister I need him back in the country immediately."

Later on Tuesday night, Ford's office released another statement that said: "Premier Ford was not aware of the minister's trip, nor did he or his office approve it. The premier learned of the trip after the minister was already out of the country."

Phillips 'deeply regrets' trip

Phillips, for his part, released a statement on Tuesday night after the premier told him to come home. "I deeply regret travelling over the holidays," the finance minister said. "It 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."

Phillips took the trip to the Caribbean island of St. Barts on Dec. 13, after the legislative session ended. He remains out of the country, his office said on Tuesday. The trip, which he paid for himself, was "previously planned," the office said.

WATCH | Minister's travel outside Canada 'completely unacceptable': Ford

In an earlier statement issued by his office, Phillips had said: "Immediately following the end of the Legislative Session, which occurred on December 8th, my wife and I departed on a previously planned personal trip outside of the country.

"Had I been aware then of the eventual December 26th provincewide shutdown, we would have cancelled the trip."

He added: "I have continued my work daily as the Minister of Finance and MPP for Ajax including dozens of digital ministry, constituency and cabinet committee calls and meetings.

"We will continue to observe public health directives, including the 14-day quarantine."

For his part, Ford reiterated that Ontario residents must continue to follow public health guidance.

"The only way we will beat COVID-19 is by following the advice provided by our public health experts. Public officials are no exception."

'We all make sacrifices,' Phillips tweets

As news of the trip surfaced, Phillips faced backlash on his Twitter account, which has been active over the period he's been out of the country.

On Christmas Eve, he tweeted: "As we all make sacrifices this #Christmas, remember that some of our fellow citizens won't even be home for Christmas dinner over Zoom.

Also on Dec. 24, Phillips tweeted a video in which he's seen sitting by a fireplace. In the video, he thanked people for what they are doing to protect the most vulnerable.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the minister's office confirmed that Phillips was also away in August and that he quarantined for 14 days on his return to Canada.

No details were provided to CBC News about the August trip.

Photo of Phillips in Durham taken previously, office says

Emily Hogeveen, press secretary in the minister's office, clarified a Dec. 15 tweet on the minister's account, which appeared to suggest he was in Durham Region on that date.

In the tweet, Phillips said it was a pleasure to join his colleagues and "some of Durham's mental health leaders" in announcing more than $1.6 million in funding to support mental health and addiction services expansion in Durham.

But Hogeveen said the photo was taken previously and posted to accompany the news of mental health funding for Durham, as it depicts the Durham MPPs.

"The minister has made no public appearances or outings," Hogeveen wrote in an email to CBC News.

Ontario's associate chief medical officer of health, Dr. Barbara Yaffe, said Tuesday the public health advice has been and continues to be not to travel outside of the country unless it's absolutely essential.

There are no rules officially prohibiting international travel.

Phillips can't be allowed free pass, NDP says

In a statement Tuesday, NDP deputy leader Sara Singh said Ford cannot give Phillips a free pass for his choice to leave the country to vacation in December while instructing everyone else to stay home.

"Doug Ford let Sam Oosterhoff off the hook when he held a big family shindig. Ford let himself off the hook for gathering with family when he told the rest of us we can't," Singh said. "These guys just think the rules don't apply to them."

She said many "everyday folks" were separated from family and aging parents during the holidays.

WATCH | Ontario public health official comments on finance minister's trip:

"They've missed the birthdays and graduations of people who are precious to them, and they have been separated from nieces, nephews and grandbabies as they've grown and hit new milestones over the last year.

"While the rest of us ache to hug our loved ones again, Doug Ford insiders are whooping it up, even vacationing in the tropics," Singh wrote.

CBC
CBC

Singh's statement referred to Niagara MPP Sam Oosterhoff, who faced backlash in October for posting a photo to social media of himself with a large group of people at a banquet hall where nobody wore a mask.

Oosterhoff apologized, and Ford accepted that, saying he still had "100 per cent confidence" in his MPP.

The NDP statement also referred to Ford's admission in May that two of his daughters who live in different households visited his home over Mother's Day weekend, contrary to the province's COVID-19 rules at the time.

'It's not fair'

Ontarians who spoke with CBC News Tuesday expressed disappointment over the minister's vacation.

"Way to go Rod Phillips," Ajax, Ont., resident Alex Amm said sarcastically.

"I have parents in Rochester, I can't go to visit them because one is in an old-age home and when I come back I have to isolate and I don't get paid for the 14 days."

CBC
CBC

Lisa Maheux, another Ajax resident, said Phillips's behaviour isn't "very fair" because "he's not practising what he preaches."

"It's not fair because everybody else is doing what they are supposed to do as part of the community," Maheux told CBC News.

Warning against non-essential travel

On Tuesday, the Public Health Agency of Canada advised people against non-essential travel and reminded all travellers returning to Canada that contravening the mandatory quarantine can lead to severe penalties.

The agency said restrictions are changing quickly and may be imposed by countries with little warning.

"Those who choose to travel may be forced to remain outside of Canada longer than expected," the agency said in a news release.

Travel restrictions and border measures have been in place in Canada since March.