The federal government has advised against all non-essential travel since the early days of the pandemic, but it’s up to individual Canadians to decide whether or not their trip is truly essential.
Experts say leaving this definition open to interpretation has created opportunities for confusion and potentially diluted the public’s willingness to follow travel guidelines after some Canadians — including politicians — booked tropical holiday getaways or visited family abroad.
“There is no question that leaving it up to the individual is insufficiently clear and how people define a word like ‘non-essential’ is going to vary from person to person,” said Christopher Cochrane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
“It should be easy for them to have a clear communications strategy, and the fact that it isn’t is a bit concerning.”
Global Affairs Canada told CTVNews.ca that the decision to travel is “the sole responsibility of the individual.” The agency also pointed to its online guidance, which states: “It is up to you to decide what ‘non-essential travel’ means, based on family or business requirements, knowledge of or familiarity with a country, territory or region, and other factors.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Tuesday that “no one should be vacationing abroad right now” after news emerged that some travellers claimed the $500-per-week Canada Recovery Sickness Benefit (CRSB) during their 14-day self-isolation period after returning home.
The government has not gone so far as to ban international holidays, and Canadian airlines and travel companies continue to offer vacation packages to Caribbean resorts, many of which advertise COVID-19 safety precautions.
Cochrane said the government should clarify what it means by non-essential travel.
“Nobody wants to make a sacrifice for no benefit whatsoever,” he said. “If there is a sense that one person is making sacrifices for the collective good and others are not making the same sacrifice, then that can undermine public commitment to the broader endeavour.”
Allan Tupper, a politics professor with the University of British Columbia, agreed that the government should go further to define what non-essential travel means and called the current definition “unacceptable.”
“It’s too vague, it’s not of any capacity to police and give corrections,” Tupper told CTVNews.ca on Wednesday. “I think it has to be much clearer.”
More than 15 provincial and federal politicians have admitted to travelling abroad recently. In some cases, they flew to sunny destinations like Mexico, Hawaii or St. Barts. In others, the trip was to visit an ailing family member, attend a funeral or manage a vacation property.
Conservative MP Rob Liepert cited “essential house maintenance issues” for his two trips in March and December to Palm Desert, Calif., where he owns a property.
"There has been no non-essential travel, and he has complied with all public health guidance, including the Alberta border testing program, each time he has travelled,” his office said in a statement.
Trudeau expressed disappointment over the politicians who travelled over the holidays, including two Liberal caucus members. Ontario Liberal MP Kamal Khera stepped aside from her role as parliamentary secretary to the minister of International Development after she visited Seattle on Dec. 23 for a private memorial for her uncle and father, both of whom passed away during the past few months.
There’s a difference between travelling for fun and travelling for a funeral, Cochrane said, but he pointed out that many Canadians have had to make the difficult choice to cancel funerals at home.
“The risk is not so much that they infect themselves. The risk is they bring the infection back and make things worse for everyone in their home country,” he said.
Many politicians who chose to travel have lost additional duties, which in some cases leads to loss of salary top-ups.
Tupper said politicians who travelled should’ve known better and insisted that they should be held to a higher standard.
“That’s one of the prices of playing this game that they’re in,” he said. “It’s the reverse that you don’t want, when the politicians are under the gun for apparently thinking they’re in a different universe.”
While these trips may be bad optics for some governments, particularly in Alberta, where at least five MLAs from the United Conservative Party admitted to recent travels, Cochrane said he doubts they’ll make a difference come election day.
“Outside of cabinet, it seems to me the final arbiter is voters. Are voters going to punish politicians for engaging in these kinds of behaviours? The evidence is on balance that they won’t, or it won’t be significant,” he said, pointing out that partisanship is the likeliest indicator of how a person will vote.
“The noise and issues that come up from time to time tend to get washed away.”
With files from CTVNews.ca's Rachel Aiello in Ottawa