Politics

Scheer and family joined other MPs on packed flight to Ottawa, ignoring social distancing rules

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer and his family, Liberal cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough and Green MP Elizabeth May packed a government jet to get to Ottawa, despite health guidelines on physical distancing.

Green Party MP Elizabeth May says everyone boarded the government plane knowing the risks

Security staff look over a government Challenger jet after its arrival at the Shell Aerocentre in North Saanich, B.C., January 7, 2014. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Parliamentarians packed onto a small nine-seat government jet last week — ignoring pandemic health guidelines to maintain a distance of two metres from others — in their haste to reach Ottawa for a vote on federal emergency economic legislation that passed on Saturday.

Outgoing Green Party Leader Elizabeth May, who lives in B.C., boarded the Challenger jet along with Liberal B.C. cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough, Conservative Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer, his wife and their five children last Friday — filling all seats on the aircraft.

Health guidelines urge individuals to maintain a two-metre distance from others to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus. But on the Challenger flight last week, passengers sat beside each other with just a few inches separating them, according to one of the passengers on board.

"I have to say, I had misgivings," May told CBC News.

Typically, the House of Commons pays for MPs to fly commercially to Ottawa. In this instance, the federal government sent an aircraft to pick up May, Qualtrough and then Scheer to attend a rare Saturday sitting of Parliament for a vote on extended emergency benefits for Canadians who have been affected by the pandemic.

Initially, the flight was only going to carry the three MPs, but later Scheer's wife and kids were added to the plan.

WATCH: Elizabeth May talks about her flight to Ottawa with the Scheers

Green Party's Elizabeth May thanked Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough and Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer Saturday for offering her a ride to Ottawa on one of the federal government's Challenger jets. 0:55

Why did all the Scheers fly?

The Conservative Opposition leader's press secretary, Denise Siele, didn't answer several questions from CBC News. She did say in an email, however, that it was cheaper for the family to fly together.

"This one way trip resulted in less travel than Mr. Scheer flying back and forth every time the House sits, or flying the entire family on commercial flights through multiple airports using MP travel points," Siele said.

The Scheers, Siele said, returned to Ottawa after spending several weeks in Regina over the March break and will now stay in the capital for the rest of the spring session.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer gives the thumbs up as he and his wife Jill board the party's election campaign plane in Ottawa October 14, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

May said she doesn't know the reason either. Last week, the Green MP said the Prime Minister's Office told her a government plane would pick her up, along with Qualtrough and Scheer. She said she was relieved because she did not want to travel commercially.

Later, May said, staffers in the PMO informed her that Scheer had requested space for his wife and family.

"That would mean every seat would be occupied," May said. "And they (the PMO) also said Jill and kids would otherwise have to fly commercial and I thought, 'Why would I ask Jill and the kids to go through all those airports?'"

May said the PMO told her she could refuse to allow the Scheer family to board, but she agreed.

CBC's questions about the flight were directed to the House Leader's Office, but the press secretary, Simon Ross, didn't answer them.

"Following a request by the Official Opposition, arrangements were made to provide the Leader of the Opposition with one-way travel to Ottawa to attend the emergency sitting of the House of Commons," Ross said in an email.

However, a senior government source, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said physical distancing was considered when the flights were organized.

'Generous impulse'

May said she took a calculated risk by ignoring the physical distancing rules because it was the compassionate thing to do. 

"Social distancing is really important, and we want to live it and prove it," May said. "But it was either (Scheer's family) went through commercial airports or we let them travel more safely together as a family."

The executive jet's cabin, when full, doesn't allow passengers or crew much room to maintain the required two-metre distance, May said.

May said she took precautions to minimize exposure on board the nine-seater Challenger jet. May — a chatty MP who isn't afraid to cross party lines to collaborate — said she took the unusual step during the flight of keeping to herself.

"I was very anti-social," May said with a laugh. "I was working on my laptop till I ran out of work. And I made myself as small as a ball as possible and went to sleep."

This image shows a layout of the Challenger jet that Elizabeth May says took her, Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough, Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer and his family to Ottawa late last week. (Bombardier)

When the plane stopped in Regina, May waved to the Scheers as they boarded, and Scheer's wife, Jill, briefly spoke with May and Qualtrough. The two B.C. MPs sat in the front of the plane in a pair of seats that faced each other, while the Scheers occupied the rest of the aircraft.

"Jill made the point of saying they (the family) were self-isolating at home," May said. "She was sure they were fine. We kept our distance as best we could." 

While May wore a mask during the flight, she said the Scheers did not. May said everyone used sterile wipes to clean all the surfaces.

"Everyone's working so hard," she said. "I don't want to create a negative story out of what was a generous impulse on the parts of everyone involved."

The MPs and the Scheers weren't the only ones to get a lift on a government aircraft. A Cessna Citation picked up the Opposition leader in the Senate, Don Plett, in Winnipeg. Unlike the situation onboard the MPs' flight, Plett said, he was able to respect the two-metre rule.

"Oh, there was lots of social distancing. I was by myself," he said.

Are the Trudeaus breaking the rules?

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might be breaking at least one public health guideline as well. Trudeau, his wife Sophie and their three kids have been spending time at Harrington Lake, the prime minister's lakeside retreat and official summer residence in Quebec, about 30 kilometres northwest of Parliament Hill.

Quebec's public health officials have asked Ontarians not to go to their country residences across the provincial border. 

The PMO's deputy director of communications, Chantal Gagnon, said the prime minister went to Harrington Lake to spend Easter with his wife and children.

"They continue to follow all public health guidelines," Gagnon said.

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

With files from Ashley Burke

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