TORONTO — Ontario finance minister Rod Phillips sheepishly apologized at Pearson airport on Thursday morning, two days after it was revealed he quietly departed for a vacation on a luxurious Caribbean island while the COVID-19 pandemic surged across Ontario.
The Ajax MPP left for St. Barts, a tiny, 10,000-inhabitant island known as a hideaway for yachts and boutique luxury hotels, on Dec. 13, calling the decision a “dumb, dumb mistake.”
“It was a significant error in judgment – a dumb, dumb mistake, I apologize for it, I regret it,” he told CP24’s Steve Ryan at the terminal.
He said that he could not really explain why he went ahead with the trip at the time that he did.
“I have been asking myself the same thing over the last number of days,” he said.
His office released a plethora of tweets and Instagram posts during the time he was away, including one where he sat next to a gingerbread house and thanked health-care workers dealing with packed hospitals, as “we all make sacrifices this Christmas.”
Many of the posts made it appear as if he was in his riding when he was not.
Phillips said it was not his intention to deceive anyone about the trip when he sent the videos, tweets and Instagram posts.
“I understand why some people believe that is the case but it is not – many politicians, in fact most politicians pre-plan and pre-load messages on social media,” he said.
But he said the messages may have made it look that way given where he was and he knows the public is upset.
“I do understand that I have angered many people – I have to work to regain their confidence.”
In a Zoom call Phillips participated in while he was away, first pointed out by the Ontario Liberal Party, the sound of the ocean tide crashing into the beach can be heard when he unmuted himself to speak.
Ontario’s two top public health officials both expressed concerns about foreign travel at the time he departed for the vacation.
The federal government has also been warning Canadians not to embark on non-essential travel since early November.
Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Wednesday he wasn’t told about the trip ahead of time, but did learn about it shortly after it began, and should have demanded Phillips return immediately.
Phillips said that he didn’t tell Ford about the trip because the premier has better things to do.
“Premier Ford has far more important things to do than worry about the travel of his ministers,” he said.
Ford has said it’s “unacceptable” for any public official to ignore the province’s COVID-19 guidelines, which urge residents to avoid non-essential travel.
Phillips said earlier this week he chose to go ahead with the trip not knowing the province would be placed under lockdown on Boxing Day.
Ontario opposition leader Andrea Horwath has called for Phillips to be removed from caucus.
Ford has said he and Phillips, who must now self-isolate until Jan. 13, will have a “very tough conversation,” about what has occurred.
Phillips said he wants to remain in cabinet, but he understands his error may mean he has to leave.
“I still think that there is a lot of work to be done in the province, but that is one of the things I will talk to the premier about today.”
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