MP Niki Ashton pays back expenses from Quebec trip

Niki Ashton, MP for Churchill—Keewatinook Aski in Northern Manitoba, has paid back her expenses from a Quebec trip over the Christmas holidays in 2022 that was scrutinized two weeks ago in a CBC News article. But she’s defiant about the reasons for the high cost and why she asked the government to foot the bill, which was approved by the House of Commons.

“I believe in accountability,” she said. “But I also believe that people should be told the full story.”

Ashton says she travelled to Ottawa with her family on December 21, 2022 to deal with a bed bug infestation at her apartment in the city.

After throwing furniture out, arranging additional treatments and moving out with help from her husband, Ashton says she and her family went to Quebec to meet with stakeholders on her official language file. During the trip, she spent time with her family, including skating and tubing in Quebec City.

Ashton was accused of improperly claiming expenses for the family trip, and has consistently declined to name the specific groups or people she met with in Quebec City and Montreal, the justification she provided for the visit.

The CBC article reported that the entire trip cost taxpayers $17,641.12, including $13,619.90 for airfare and other transportation, $2,508.39 for accommodations and $1,512.83 for meals and other incidentals, according to Commons records.

The trip Ashton and her family took was approved by the House of Commons administration, and declared in official documents, but she paid back the funds that she expensed on the Quebec leg of the trip last week. Ashton said she paid back the money to spare abuse and death threats to the stakeholders she met with in the province. Ashton has repaid only the Quebec portion of those expenses — four nights’ accommodation and meals, and a vehicle rental, for a total of approximately $2,900 — because she says she needed her husband’s help in dealing with the bed bug infestation in Ottawa.

Death threats and online abuse directed at Ashton arrived hours and days after the article was published, including threats on social media photos of her children and on the social media accounts of her husband. Ashton takes issue with politicizing her husband in the CBC article. Her husband ran for the NDP as a nomination candidate in 2014 but is now working as a teacher and Afghanistan veteran advocate.

“The story… pulled from his social media, therefore framing him as a target and unduly politicizing him, furthering this misleading narrative,” she said.

Ashton was also criticized for only working in Ottawa for four days in the Fall 2022 session.

She believes that her hybrid work speaks for herself and is “undermined” when it is insinuated that she does not work when she is not in the house. Ashton sits on two committees and voted on approximately 94 per cent of measures in front of the House in the fall 2022 session — 66 of 70 votes, according to House of Commons records.

Ashton says she is “looking forward” to getting to Ottawa “more often.” However, an upcoming surgery later this year after a torn ACL injury from skiing will complicate her ability to travel in the fall.

Ashton also questions the timing of the CBC News article, noting that it was published the day she held a press conference calling for the investigation of Canadian charities who allegedly funnel funds in support of Israeli military operations and illegal settlements in Palestine. She did not provide evidence of any connection between the timing of the two events.

Ashton is also taking the opportunity provided by the expenses her family trip incurred to point the spotlight at the costs of travelling to Manitoba’s northern region, including her constituency in Churchill—Keewatinook Aski. The bulk of the cost was the $13,619.90 in airfare. Flights from Winnipeg to northern Manitoba, around two-hour flights, can cost more than round trips to Europe if flying from southern Canada.

However, Thompson is accessible by road and rail from Winnipeg, which is around an eight-hour drive one way or an overnight train ride.

One company, Calm Air, holds a monopoly in the province's north. Ashton said that since the pandemic, when she travels to Ottawa, she has to take three flights, often with an overnight stay in Winnipeg, due to the timing of Calm Air flights, which she calls “exorbitantly expensive.”

“When it's only one airline, you are completely beholden to their terms,” she said.

“The bottom line is we need competition, and we need the federal government to step up and make that clear to airlines in regions like ours,” she added.

A review investigating the high prices of air travel of Calm Air and other airlines is currently before the Competition Bureau.

Canada’s National Observer has contacted Calm Air for comment.

Matteo Cimellaro / Canada’s National Observer / Local Journalism Initiative

Matteo Cimellaro, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Canada's National Observer