Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer says he made the “best choice” available by flying with his family to Ottawa on a small government jet at a time when Canadians are being told to physically distance from one another and avoid non-essential travel.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa Tuesday, the Tory leader was pressed about a CBC News report that revealed Scheer asked that his wife, Jill, and their five children hitch a ride last week on a Challenger flight that was bringing him and two British Columbia MPs — Green parliamentary leader Elizabeth May and Liberal minister Carla Qualtrough — to the capital.
The move meant the nine-seat plane, sent by the government to bring the MPs for a rare Saturday sitting of the House of Commons to pass its wage subsidy plan, was full. Public health experts have told Canadians to keep at least two metres from each other to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and to stay home as much as possible.
Scheer said he was “not at all” concerned that the move created an impression that the strict social distancing rules imposed on other Canadians don’t apply to him.
“The idea that we were packed one on top of each other is just completely ridiculous,” he said.
Scheer, who has represented the Saskatchewan riding of Regina-Qu’appelle since 2004, said he was with his family in Regina for the March break “when the music stopped.” The Tory leader said he had to decide between commuting back and forth between Ottawa and Regina over several weeks, flying his family to Ottawa with stops at “several different airports,” or catching a flight that the government was offering between Vancouver and Ottawa anyway.
“We took great steps to ensure that we minimized our interactions with each other. My wife brought (disinfectant) wipes along with her. We made sure that we were not speaking moistly on each other,” Scheer said, a reference to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s much-discussed quip at a press conference last week.
“We kept our distance, we kept to ourselves, and we made that decision based on the alternatives.”
Scheer says his family will now be based in Ottawa until June. The House is not scheduled to sit again until Monday but it is unclear whether MPs will be called back.
He suggested he would not reimburse the costs of the flight because the House of Commons travel service would have covered the expenses of his family’s air travel had they taken a commercial flight.
“Like every other family, we have drastically reduced our leaving the house and other types of travel. In order to be here for work, the essential work that Parliament is going to be doing over the next few weeks and months, we made that decision,” he said.
The Tory leader also appeared irked when a reporter asked why it was “essential” for his family to return to Ottawa with him, noting Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, has said to avoid unnecessary travel.
“Feel free to continue to analyze this,” the Tory leader said, before noting that he pressed Trudeau in the House on Saturday about the government’s procurement plan for ventilators.
Elizabeth May says flight was ‘a family event’
“So, those are the types of things that I’m focusing on. We’re going to continue to hold this government to account for its response.”
May, the outgoing Green leader, told CBC News that staffers in the Prime Minister’s Office informed her in advance that Scheer had requested spots on the flight for his wife and children. She could have refused to allow the entire Scheer family to board in Regina, the report states, but she opted not to do so. May wore a mask during the flight.
In the House Saturday, May thanked Qualtrough for “giving her a lift,” saying the group “plane-pooled” to Ottawa. She also thanked Scheer, joking it was “more like his plane,” and said she was glad his wife and kids could come along.
“It was a family event as we made our way here,” she said.
PM pressed on trip to Harrington Lake
Trudeau also faced questions Tuesday about his decision to leave his Ottawa home at Rideau Cottage to celebrate Easter with his family at Harrington Lake, the prime minister’s official country residence in Quebec’s Gatineau Park. Harrington Lake is roughly 25 kilometres northwest of Ottawa.
Trudeau’s wife, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, was diagnosed with COVID-19 a month ago, forcing the prime minister to isolate at home. She took their three children to the country residence, after announcing on March 28 that she had received a clean bill of health from doctors.
Tam and other public health experts have advised Canadians who live in cities not to head to properties in remote and rural areas — such as cottages — out of concern they could spread the virus and overwhelm local hospitals. Quebec authorities have also asked residents not to go to their cottages during the pandemic and have set up checkpoints at provincial borders.
A social media post from Grégoire Trudeau over the weekend yielded a number of negative comments.
During his daily press briefing in Ottawa Tuesday, the prime minister didn’t say directly why he felt it was acceptable for him to head off to a secondary residence.
“As I mentioned last week… after three weeks of my family living up at Harrington and me working here, I went to join them for Easter,” Trudeau said. “We continue to follow all the instructions from public health authorities.”