Conservative Sen. Don Plett — who sparked controversy by travelling to Mexico on vacation over the holidays — co-signed a directive last year barring all MPs and senators from traveling outside Canada as part of interparliamentary delegations.
The directive, initially signed in March and renewed repeatedly, is still in effect. It is expected to be renewed again before it expires on Feb. 5.
The directive was adopted unanimously by MPs and senators on the Joint Interparliamentary Council (JIC). It instructs all interparliamentary associations to “cancel or postpone any mission presently being planned during this period.” It applies to trips to other countries planned by MPs and senators, as well as trips to Canada by foreign elected officials.
Canada has a dozen interparliamentary associations which work to improve relationships with other countries and promote Canada’s interests abroad. Members of interparliamentary groups attend international conferences, conduct missions to other countries and invite elected officials from other countries to visit Canada.
Many of the conferences Canadian parliamentarians had been scheduled to attend were cancelled as the pandemic dragged on.
Conservative MP Bruce Stanton, who co-signed the directive with Plett, said the JIC took the decision to halt interparliamentary travel the same day the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.
“We just said, ‘Look, we’ve got to shut this down.’ There’s just no way we can agree to see parliamentarians going outbound or … receiving interparliamentary delegations on Parliament Hill,” he said.
Stanton said Plett agreed with the decision.
“There was no hesitation on his part at all,” he said.
On Monday, it was revealed that Plett had travelled to Mexico over the holidays, despite government advisories to avoid non-essential travel outside Canada.
“Senator Plett travelled to Mexico on December 28th, upon arrival he reflected on his decision to travel and immediately made arrangements to return home on December 31st,” Plett’s spokesperson Karine Leroux said on Monday.
“This was his sole trip outside Canada since March 2020.”
Senate spokesperson Alison Korn said the upper house has not issued any travel directives for senators or Senate staff.
No sanctions for travelling senators so far
Plett’s office declined an interview request from CBC News about the moratorium he co-signed.
Unlike many of the other political figures found in recent days to have travelled outside of the country, Plett has not faced any sanctions. Neither has Ontario Senator Vern White, who confirmed this week he flew to Finland with his family to visit inlaws. White told CBC News he’s currently in quarantine in Finland.
Three senators have yet to respond to questions from CBC News about their travel: Scott Tannas, leader of the Canadian Senators Group (CSG), CSG deputy leader Josée Verner and Jean-Guy Dagenais, who is also a member of the CSG.
NDP MP Lindsay Mathyssen, who sits on the JIC and who voted for the moratorium, said Plett’s trip to Mexico contradicts the moratorium order he co-signed.
‘It hurts us all’
“Certainly I believe there is a contradiction there and I believe that we do have that responsibility to be role models in that regard and to not take on personal travel internationally,” she said.
Mathyssen said that by choosing to travel abroad when average Canadians are being asked to stay put, Plett and other politicians are undermining public confidence in elected officials.
“I think it hurts us all,” she said.
The interparliamentary group is not the only federal government organization that has issued orders restricting travel during the pandemic.
In June, the Board of Internal Economy — which oversees the operations of the House of Commons — voted to suspend all travel by House of Commons committees.
Although committees are grounded, there is no order preventing individual MPs, their staff or House of Commons employees from travelling, said House of Commons spokesperson Heather Bradley.
Treasury Board spokesperson Martin Potvin said federal public servants have been instructed to avoid all non-essential travel.
“The General Occupational Health Advisory, issued by Health Canada’s Public Service Occupational Health Program, advises public servants against non-essential business travel, and human resources officials have regularly conveyed this information to their counterparts in departments and agencies, as recently as January 5, 2021,” he said.
While public servants can tap into special “leave with pay” days if they are required to self-isolate, Potvin said they lose that option if they flout the travel advisory.
“If an employee has made a personal choice and travelled against public health advice and Government of Canada travel advisories and is required to isolate or quarantine, ‘Other Leave with Pay (699)’ would not be available to them,” he said.
Potvin said the Treasury Board has no statistics on how many government employees have fallen into that category.
Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at email@example.com.