Ontario’s Finance Minister Rod Phillips faces calls to resign after he went on a weeks-long trip to the Caribbean, flouting Canada’s Covid-19 guidelines, and apparently posted specious tweets to suggest he hadn’t left the country.
As the scandal grabbed headlines in national media, Ontario Premier Doug Ford insisted he had not been aware of Phillips’ plans to make the trip. He admitted, however, that at some point he became aware of the minister’s overseas travels, yet did not demand he return immediately to the province – at least not until the trip became known to the media.
“I did call him shortly after he arrived and I asked him and he said he was away,” Ford told reporters on Wednesday, saying elsewhere that he was “extremely disappointed” in the minister’s decision to travel “at a time when every Ontarian has been asked to make sacrifices.”
My mistake, and I take full responsibility. At that time, I should have said get your backside back into Ontario and I didn’t do that.
Though he still remains in St. Barts – an upscale Caribbean vacation spot popular with the well-to-do – Phillips said in a statement on Tuesday he “deeply” regretted the holiday travel, acknowledging “it was a mistake and I apologize.”
“I left on a personally paid trip to St. Barts on Dec. 13 following the end of the Legislative session,” Phillips continued, adding that he was “making arrangements to return to Ontario immediately and will begin a 14-day quarantine as soon as I arrive.”
The admission followed weeks of speculation about whether the minister had remained in Canada, where national and provincial health officials have urged against “non-essential” travel amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Adding insult to injury, Phillips appears to have arranged a series of Twitter posts in recent weeks to indicate that he hadn’t left the country, sharing photos of himself meeting with local business owners – and seemingly wearing the same clothes in all of them.
The Progressive Conservative Party minister also shared a video message on Christmas Eve – in what looks to be the same outfit – lamenting that many Canadians would not be able to meet family face to face during the holidays. Earlier the same day, he had similarly commended the “sacrifices” some would have to make at Christmas – though a tropical getaway did not make the list.
As we all make sacrifices this #Christmas, remember that some of our fellow citizens won’t even be home for Christmas dinner over Zoom.Thousands of front line heroes will be at work, looking out for us. Who is the special hero in your life you want to thank? 👩🏽⚕️👨⚕️👮👨🏿🚒👷🏻🎖️
— Rod Phillips (@RodPhillips01) December 24, 2020
Phillips went to some lengths to conceal his location during his stay in St. Barts. During a video conference call on December 16, the finance minister used a virtual backdrop of Ontario’s legislative building while he spoke over the sound of waves, as the province’s Liberal Party later pointed out in a tweet.
While Phillips was overseas, moreover, Ontario imposed a province-wide lockdown that took effect on December 26, further tightening restrictions on “non-essential” travel. In a previous statement, he said he would have “cancelled the trip” had he known a new shutdown was in store.
The mea culpas appear to have done little to quieten critics, however, with residents blasting Phillips for flouting his own government’s “simple public health guidelines,” and Globe and Mail columnist Peter Scowen demanding his resignation.
What else helps with keeping an outbreak under control?Staying the fuck home & not leaving (non-essential travel) the country in the middle of a pandemic.If you can’t follow simple public health guidelines, then can we trust you with the province’s finances?FYI, WE DON’T
— Kiel Coyle (@EcoGeek13) December 29, 2020
If Rod Phillips doesn’t resign over his incredible lack of judgment, compounded by his attempts to mislead the public about his whereabouts, then leadership and accountability have no meaning in the Ford government.
— Peter Scowen (@scowen13) December 30, 2020
This law abiding citizen is now furious. My wife and do not invite anyone family for Christmas. We even ordered food in for Christmas dinner. We cancelled our trip south. We were told that was the right thing to do. I am starting to believe we have been mislead by the @fordnation
— David Toulmin (@doulmin) December 29, 2020
Ontario New Democratic Party head Andrea Horwath also called for the minister to be removed from the cabinet, deeming the situation “shameful” while blasting Ford for “knowing that this was the case and simply turning a blind eye.” She added: “There has to be some accountability for these kinds of things.”
Phillips joins a long list of world leaders and lawmakers caught flouting Covid-19 restrictions, including rules they themselves helped to implement. In the US especially, a litany of politicians have found themselves in hot water over similar gaffes, at times being seen to have violated containment measures mere hours after imposing them over their constituents.