Politics

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon says media's portrayal of trip expenses was 'unfair' but changes could be in the works

Governor General Mary Simon says that while she thinks the way catering expenses for her trip to the Middle East in March were portrayed in the media was "unfair," a review is underway to minimize the cost of future voyages.

Simon argues her travel includes important discussions about world peace

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, pictured here during a trip to B.C. in May, said her office was working with Global Affairs Canada and the Department of National Defence to make sure future trips are costed efficiently. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press)

Governor General Mary Simon says that while she thinks the way catering expenses for her trip to the Middle East in March were portrayed in the media was "unfair," a review is underway to minimize the cost of future voyages.

"I don't even know what the orders are for meals. But I do know one thing — our meals are not very extravagant on these trips. They're pretty much like airline meals and the way they were portrayed in the media was pretty unfair, I thought," Simon said in an interview on CBC's The House airing Saturday.

The National Post first reported on the cost of the Governor General's trip, during which she spent time in London, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. The Department of National Defence (DND), which is responsible for organizing catering on official diplomatic flights, said the total catering cost for the eight-day trip was around $80,000.

Simon told host Catherine Cullen her office shares the concerns of Canadians regarding the trip cost and is working with Global Affairs Canada and DND to reduce expenses in the future.

Governor General Mary Simon sits down with host Catherine Cullen to discuss challenges facing the Arctic and explains why travel to international gatherings is essential to her job.

Last month, Stewart Wheeler, who serves as chief of protocol for Canada at Global Affairs Canada, said some elements of the flights were "problematic." MPs expressed confusion about the cost and Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus said he wanted to know if there were "excesses."

Christine MacIntyre, deputy secretary to the Governor General, told MPs Rideau Hall was also surprised and concerned by the costs.

"The costs were really shocking to all of us," she said. "We had eggs. We had omelettes."

In a statement to CBC News, DND said an interdepartmental working group was being created to draft measures "in pursuit of the best possible value going forward." The department said catering costs are affected by everything from exchange rates and the location of stops, to the number and type of catering companies available.

Simon told The House that her international travel was at the direction of the prime minister.

"I don't just pick up my suitcase and travel wherever I want," she said. "Every travel has to be very carefully planned. The objectives of the trip have to be very clearly defined."

Travel a necessary part of the job: Simon

Simon said she expects another parliamentary committee meeting on the matter and she hopes MPs can "continue to clear up what the misunderstanding is."

"I think there is a need for people to understand that, first of all, I don't take my job lightly, and secondly, I'd like to do it in the most conservative way that I can. But the amount of travel that we do is tremendous and it's a necessary part of the job," she said.

Simon said she had no role in the logistics of trip planning but was focused on the purpose of her trip.

WATCH | Governor General Mary Simon addresses trip expenses:

Governor General Mary Simon responds to controversy over the price tag of her trip to the Middle East earlier this year.

4 months ago
Duration 1:18
Governor General Mary Simon responds to controversy over the price tag of her trip to the Middle East earlier this year.

"I'm involved in discussions about world peace and Canada's role in world peace. And going into different countries to talk with our partners on how we can work together to further our position on world peace is very important for Canada, as well as the world," she said. "So I take that responsibility very seriously."

The Governor General spoke to The House from Reykjavík, Iceland, where she took part in the Arctic Circle Assembly, a gathering to discuss issues and challenges in the Arctic.

GG embraces multifaceted role

Simon said Russia's invasion of Ukraine posed a significant risk to co-operation and progress in the Arctic. The Arctic Council, the leading intergovernmental forum on the region, is largely on pause because Russia holds its chairmanship.

Russia's invasion poses "a risk to the world," Simon said.

Simon is Canada's first Indigenous Governor General. She was born in Kangiqsualujjuaq in northern Quebec.

Governor General Mary Simon makes her way into the Qarmaapik Family House on Tuesday, May 10, 2022 in Kangiqsualujjuaq, Que. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

"We've always understood amongst ourselves in the Arctic region that this is our homeland, and it should stay our homeland," she said. Simon also noted that while the Arctic is certainly seen as a strategic area, it's also important to recognize that for those who live there, peaceful collaboration and development is important.

Simon, who has long worked on Arctic issues, said collaboration in the region has progressed greatly over the past several decades and has embraced a greater acceptance of the role played by Indigenous people.

"You know you can see that that change, but the change has to be embraced in a way where we're not just talking about the role of people, but actually involving them in the discussions and in the decision-making process of how the Arctic is being affected by different issues," she said.

While she said she stays apolitical, Simon added she is able to using her "convening power" to spur conversations with the prime minister and others to share her advice.

Simon said that she's guided by her background as a northerner, her role as Governor General and her commitment to addressing reconciliation, describing her role as "multi-level."

"I'm very involved in that work and I stay very focused on my mandate, but my past is always guiding me."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Christian Paas-Lang covers federal politics for CBC News in Ottawa as an associate producer with The House and a digital writer with CBC Politics. You can reach him at christian.paas-lang@cbc.ca.

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