The leader and deputy leader of the Canadian Senators Group (CSG) refuse to say whether they’ve travelled abroad at a time when the government is strongly recommending against leaving the country due to the risks of COVID-19 transmission.
CBC News contacted every sitting member of the upper house to inquire about their foreign travel after a number of politicians came in for criticism for ignoring advisories to avoid all non-essential travel.
Interim CSG leader Sen. Scott Tannas of Alberta and Quebec Sen. Josée Verner, the group’s deputy leader, were the only two senators in the 93-member body who did not respond to multiple requests for comment about their whereabouts. Phone calls to their Senate offices went unanswered and staff did not respond to emails.
Hawaii land records reviewed by CBC News indicate Tannas owns a timeshare property in the state.
Tannas, who was appointed by former prime minister Stephen Harper in 2013, serves as the deputy chair of the Senate’s ethics and conflict of interest committee. He also serves as the deputy chair of the powerful internal economy, budgets and administration (CIBA) committee. A spokesperson for CIBA did not respond to a request for comment.
In addition to his role as a senator, Tannas runs an Alberta-based private equity firm, the Western Investment Company of Canada.
The CSG’s whip, P.E.I. Sen. Percy Downe, refused to say whether the other members of the CSG leadership team — a small-c conservative group largely composed of former Conservative senators — had left the country.
Traditionally, a whip acts as an enforcer-in-chief, charged with keeping track of caucus members to ensure there are enough senators on hand for debates and votes.
Downe said he does not play that role in this 12-member group — which also includes Saskatchewan Sen. Pamela Wallin and B.C. Sen. Larry Campbell, among others.
“As you probably know, the CSG members in the Senate are completely independent, and our group does not whip votes or our members. Therefore, they are not required to advise how they intend to vote on any legislation, and in that spirit of independence, do not advise or seek permission to travel,” Downe said in an email statement.
One CSG senator is in Florida
Two other members of the CSG told CBC News that they travelled abroad over the Christmas break.
A spokesperson for Quebec Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais said Monday the senator is currently in Florida and will return to Canada sometime this week once repairs to a seasonal property are finished.
Senator asked me to reassure you by saying that he did not find himself on any dance floor with a piña colada in his hand– Spokesperson for Sen. Jean-Guy Dagenais
Dagenais “had to travel to coordinate works that needed to be done on his property at the request of the neighbourhood and to be in good standing with its property insurance,” the spokesperson said.
“Senator asked me to reassure you by saying that he did not find himself on any dance floor with a piña colada in his hand.”
Another CSG senator, Ontario Sen. Vern White, is also currently overseas.
“Yes, I have travelled to Finland with my family to visit my spouse’s parents,” White said in an email.
Manitoba NDP MP Daniel Blaikie, the party’s democratic reform critic, said it’s “shameful” for senators to dodge questions about their travel history.
He said it’s particularly galling that the only two parliamentarians to avoid questions about travel come from the same caucus.
“It’s a caucus that has no intention of being accountable. I think it’s really disappointing. This lack of transparency is a reoccurring problem with the Senate. Canadians deserve better than that, senators ought to be just as accountable for their actions as any elected public office holder,” Blaikie told CBC News. “And yet, there’s no way for the Canadian public to make them accountable.
“I think a good rule of thumb for any politician is, if you’re not willing to talk about what you’re doing in front of a microphone, there’s a very good chance you’re not doing the right thing.”
Blaikie said it’s been well-known for months that the federal government has warned against all international travel and the Canadian public is rightfully concerned about politicians who are ducking the rules.
“If a senator decides to do that, then they should also be willing to talk about their choice,” he said. “It’s shameful that these senators are choosing to engage in this type of behaviour and refuse to talk publicly about it. It drives me nuts.”
Manitoba Sen. Don Plett, the Conservative leader in the Senate, also spent part of the Christmas holidays in Mexico.
Last week, a Conservative spokesperson said the senator was “following the 14 days quarantine guidelines after having travelled briefly to Mexico on personal travel.”