Why Canadians are fuming at footloose politicians

Sara Miller Llana

It was the perfect setting for Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips’ Christmas Eve address to his constituents in Canada. In a black turtleneck, he sits in front of a glowing fireplace, a gingerbread house and glass of eggnog on the coffee table beside him.

“Now I know that this Christmas is a bit different from Christmases in the past. We’re meeting virtually and online, and not able to be in person with as many family and friends as we’d like to,” he says in the staid message.

Except Mr. Phillips wasn’t isolating at home on Christmas Eve. His Christmas was much more typical for Canadians perennially drawn to warmer climes during the holiday season. He was in St. Barts in the Caribbean.

His tropical vacation has drawn the ire of Canadians – both for the fact of it and the intent to disguise it. And pressure has been such that he was forced to come home and resign on New Year’s Eve.

Yet this was just the beginning of elites touching down from international destinations to find a public uproar. The latest incident emerged Tuesday, when the CEO of two hospitals in Ontario, who also sits on a health advisory board directing Ontario on COVID-19, resigned after admitting he just returned from the Dominican Republic.

The Canadian media has been publishing running updates of their excursions, some with photo montages that resemble “wanted” posters, reflecting just how fed up the nation is.

Canadian leaders aren’t alone in misreading public tolerance. Mexico’s COVID-19 czar was photographed at an oceanside restaurant over the holidays, while American public health officer Deborah Birx announced her intention to retire after traveling to celebrate Thanksgiving with various family members.

But the international exploits of the Canadian elite have dominated headlines in a country that holds rule-following and notions of the greater good dear – values often cited as the reason Canada has fared better than the United States during the pandemic in the first place.

“People have sacrificed a lot. The holidays really gave a lot of us time to think about everything we’ve lost this year. And in that exact moment, we found out that the people who made the rules that we’re living under actually think that the rules don’t apply to them,” says Kai Nagata, communications director at Dogwood, a British Columbia-based community organizing group focused on democratic reform, climate change, and Indigenous rights. “I think that Canadians still have some pretty strong collectivist instincts about what it means to pull together and face a common enemy. And when you have people who don’t follow the rules, it very quickly erodes solidarity.”

It’s not the first time politicians here have lost moral authority on their pandemic response. But this has touched a particular nerve because of how high the stakes feel at the start of 2021. As the New Year arrived, with hopes of vaccines and putting the lockdowns of 2020 behind, Canada is in the middle of a second wave that far eclipses the first.

The sense of frustration, anxiety, and fear has put people’s patience at zero, says Frank Graves, president of EKOS Research Associates, a public opinion firm in Ottawa. “I think it comes in an inflamed environment where the public are saying, ‘Are you kidding? We’re in the crisis of a lifetime. Everybody is telling us to behave. Most of us are, and you’re going on a trip to Hawaii and Arizona?’”

The decisions to travel internationally for nonessential purposes is also an affront to a society that likes to think of itself as rule-abiding and community-minded, he says, especially compared to the U.S. “I don’t find [the cultures] as strikingly different as Canadians would imagine,” he says, “but there is a national mythology that we are more dutiful and respectful of authority.” And thus, the disappointment rings louder.

A Toronto Star column condemned the “non-essential travellers’ wall of shame.” A CBC column likened elected officials in Alberta who traveled over the holidays to turkeys who can’t follow the simplest tasks. “‘Don’t skip town when your government has asked everybody to sacrifice their Christmas holidays with their extended families’ isn’t merely a reasonable ask,” wrote Jen Gerson. “It’s a painfully obvious ethical choice.”

The number of officials who traveled abroad from Alberta, sometimes dubbed the “Texas of Canada,” has been particularly galling, says Melanee Thomas, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, because of the emphasis Premier Jason Kenney has put on personal responsibility in lieu of strict rules and sanctions. But then the conservative leader initially failed to chastise officials for not technically breaking rules until public outcry forced him to. “The double standard is just so obvious in this particular case,” Dr. Thomas says.

Angry constituents left a sign outside the office of Alberta’s municipal affairs minister, Tracy Allard, who went to Hawaii over the holidays: “Welcome Home #AlohaAllard,” it read. She too was forced to resign.

Part of the anger could owe to how closely it touches home. An online poll by the firm Leger in Montreal showed that 48% of Canadians said they visited family and friends outside their households over the holidays.

But perhaps more worrisome is the reaction to that poll. A typical response on Twitter by one user reads: “And nearly 50% of politicians visited with family, friends OUTSIDE the country!! How about you run that poll!!!?”

Indeed, compliance does break down when those in authority don’t adhere to their own policies, wrote Daisy Fancourt of the COVID-19 Social Study at University College London, in the Guardian. The study of rules adherence in the United Kingdom found that citizens started breaking them when they saw elites finding loopholes.

For Mr. Nagata, the democracy organizer in British Columbia, actions of political leaders who are not forthright about their whereabouts gives rise to mistrust. He cites the particular case of Mr. Phillips in Ontario. “Beyond contributing to people giving up on social distancing rules, it creates a broader long-term problem, which is that it forces people to question why they would ever trust what politicians are saying … which I think is a breeding ground for conspiratorial thinking.”

“I think the politicians who took their tropical vacations probably did so just out of selfishness and just being generally out of touch,” he says. “But the corrosive impact is going to cost lives because a lot of people are rightly going to say, ‘Well, why should I follow the rules if the people who designed the rules don’t?”

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