Ontario Premier Doug Ford is acknowledging he knew his finance minister, Rod Phillips, was outside Canada before the news of Phillips’s Caribbean vacation began making headlines Tuesday.
Phillips, Ford said, never told him he was leaving.
“I did call him shortly after he arrived and I asked him and he said he was away,” Ford told reporters Wednesday.
“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.”
The premier now says a “very tough conversation” is in store when Phillips returns from his trip taken while Ontarians were urged to hunker down amid rising cases of COVID-19.
WATCH | Ford admits he should have asked finance minister to return from Caribbean sooner:
Phillips has been on vacation in Saint Barthélemy, a Caribbean island known popularly as St. Barts. He is on his way back to Canada and is scheduled to arrive in the country on Thursday, Ford said.
Phillips apologized Tuesday evening for leaving the country on Dec. 13 for a personal trip even as health officials pleaded with Ontarians to only venture outside of their homes for essential purposes.
Ford spoke publicly on the issue for the first time at Trillium Health in Mississauga, where staff are preparing to distribute Moderna COVID-19 vaccines to Peel Public Health.
“There can’t be rules for elected people and non-elected people,” Ford told reporters.
“I can tell you I’m very upset. I’m very frustrated with the situation. I stand out here every single day and tell people to stay at home,” he said.
“It’s unacceptable and we’re going to have a very tough conversation when he gets back.”
Phillips travelled to Switzerland in August
News of Phillips’s holiday trip to the Caribbean — despite the COVID-19 pandemic and his own government’s advice to avoid non-essential travel — has left many questioning how it came about in the first place and sparked calls for his resignation.
Today Phillips’s office also told CBC News that the minister had taken a trip to Switzerland in August.
Phillips’s office posted a series of tweets in the days after the minister had already departed for the Caribbean that could arguably give the impression that he was at home through the holidays.
A Dec. 15 tweet, for example, includes a photo of Phillips with colleagues and health professionals at a funding announcement for expanded mental health services in Durham Region.
It was my pleasure to join my colleagues & some of Durham’s mental health leaders in announcing over $1.6 Million in funding to support Mental Health & Addictions services expansion in #Durham. This funding will also support the addition of 5 new supportive housing units. pic.twitter.com/ETmGdYQ276
A spokesperson for his office told CBC News that the photo was taken previously and was simply used to coincide with the announcement on that day.
On Dec. 24, his account posted, “As we all make sacrifices this #Christmas, remember that some of our fellow citizens won’t even be home for Christmas dinner over Zoom.”
Then in a Christmas Eve video, a fireside Phillips — flanked by a gingerbread house and a tiny Christmas tree — thanks the public for all they are doing to protect the most vulnerable.
It’s #ChristmasEve. To my constituents in #Ajax & people across Ontario, all the best during this special time of year. Even as COVID-19 changes how we celebrate, we should reflect on what makes Christmas so special to us – including family & the act of giving. #MerryChristmas! pic.twitter.com/AX7hKWA88n
“I’m concerned about the videos as well on social media,” Ford said Wednesday.
“We’re going to address it, and I assure the people of Ontario we’re going to have a tough conversation when he gets back.”
Ford said that after their conversation he would “get back to the people” with a further update.
Calls for Phillips to be removed from cabinet
The premier’s comments came as opposition legislators called for Phillips to be removed from cabinet over his international vacation.
They said the minister contravened the government’s own health guidelines by travelling abroad and it’s not believable he would do so without telling the premier.
NDP Leader Andrea Horwath echoed a call from her party for Phillips’s removal from cabinet.
“While the government demands sacrifice from everyday Ontarians, Rod Phillips chose to ignore public health advice, jet off to St. Barts and create an elaborate coverup on social media,” Horwath said Wednesday.
“It’s not believable that a senior member of cabinet didn’t tell the premier’s office he was leaving the country for weeks during the height of a global emergency. If he didn’t, that in itself would be enough reason to demote him.”
Horwath said there is a pattern of “these guys behaving like rules don’t apply to them.”
In October, Niagara MPP Sam Oosterhoff faced backlash 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, saying he still had “100 per cent confidence” in his MPP.
In May, Ford also admitted 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.
Meanwhile, the Liberals noted it has been a “longstanding requirement” for ministers to notify the premier’s office of any out-of-province travel and urged Ford to disclose if any others on his team had ventured outside Ontario during the pandemic.
Experts have also expressed concerns that seeing one of the province’s leaders flout the very guidelines he is promoting will erode public trust and encourage others to break the rules.
“This is like the parent with a cigarette dangling in their mouth, telling the child not to smoke,” said Dr. Andrew Morris, professor of medicine at the University of Toronto and medical director for Mount Sinai Hospital’s antimicrobial stewardship program.
“It does make a mockery of what the government is trying to tell the public to do,” he said.
Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at Toronto’s York University, said perceived hypocrisy in politicians breeds cynicism and mistrust faster than incompetence.
Usually that’s something voters weigh at election time, but in this case it could cause some to stop following public health guidelines.
“My worry is that stories like this will make people feel silly for doing the hard work, for staying at home, for cancelling family gatherings,” he said Wednesday.
“The last thing we want to do right now is make the rule-followers feel silly, because so many lives and livelihoods depend on all of us following public health guidance.”
‘A mistake that never should have happened’
The timing of the trip may be particularly damaging given the sacrifices many people made over the holidays, he said.
If the government wants to regain some of the trust lost over this incident, it needs to make sure Phillips’s travel is seen “not as an act of hypocrisy, but rather as a mistake that never should have happened,” Hoffman said.
WATCH | Ford knew about finance minister’s travel abroad:
The fact that the minister has vowed to self-isolate for 14 days after his return won’t do much to help his credibility since that is a legal requirement that comes with hefty penalties, the professor said. The travel guidelines, meanwhile, are simply a recommendation, he said.
“Doing one is unlikely to lift the public health messaging damage of the other,” he said.
There is no rule that explicitly prohibits international travel during the pandemic.
But the Public Health Agency of Canada has advised against it, and provincial officials in Ontario have repeatedly told the public to avoid it as well.