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At least two senators left country amid COVID-19 pandemic, five not saying

OTTAWA — Sen. Don Plett is facing calls for his resignation as Conservative leader in the Senate after choosing to vacation in Mexico over the holidays.

OTTAWA — Sen. Don Plett is facing calls for his resignation as Conservative leader in the Senate after choosing to vacation in Mexico over the holidays.

But Plett is not the only senator who travelled abroad even as Canadians were being told to stay home to curb the spread of COVID-19.

Sen. Vern White, a former Conservative who now sits with the Canadian Senators Group, has admitted to the CBC that he went to Finland to visit his wife's parents.

And four other senators have not responded to repeated questions from The Canadian Press about whether they've left the country since Dec. 1.

The vast majority — 87 of the current roster of 93 senators — say they have stayed home, as recommended by public health authorities. Indeed, most said they haven't travelled anywhere since the pandemic began sweeping Canada last March.

"Personally, I find it insulting to Canadians when politicians promote or recommend rules that they themselves don’t follow," said Sen. Rosa Galvez, a member of the Independent Senators Group.

"I’m appalled that the leader of the Opposition in the Senate, Donald Plett, travelled to a resort in Mexico when he berated the prime minister for going to a close-by cottage this summer and he stated in his end-of-year message, 'We cannot travel and gather as we normally would.'"

Galvez said Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole should remove Plett as his Senate leader, just as MPs from multiple parties have been stripped of their committee and other parliamentary duties for failing to abide by public health instructions.

However, O'Toole's office has said it's not up to the leader. The party's Senate leader is chosen by Conservative senators.

Sen. Marilou McPhedran, also a member of the Independent Senators Group, doubted that Conservative senators will choose to punish Plett.

"Most of them have followed his preference for not wearing a mask in the Senate chamber much of the time, thereby exposing the rest of us, but particularly more vulnerable members of their own caucus sitting nearer to them, to their aerosol expulsions for hours on end," McPhedran said.

"So it seems doubtful that they will see Sen. Plett’s decision to vacation outside Canada to be a significant reflection on his leadership."

Most of the 20 Conservative senators declined to comment on Plett's future.

One, Sen. Elizabeth Marshall, said in an email: "I consider any concerns I have about Senator Plett’s travel an internal matter."

Two Conservative senators expressed support for Plett.

"Sen. Plett continues to have my full confidence as the Conservative Senate caucus leader," Sen. Linda Frum said in an email.

"He made a mistake, he acknowledged that mistake, and we need to move forward."

On Monday, a spokesperson for Plett said the senator travelled to Mexico on Dec. 28. Upon his arrival, he "reflected on his decision to travel" and immediately made arrangements to return home to Manitoba on Dec. 31.

Plett's arrival in Mexico would have coincided with the furor that erupted over the Dec. 29 revelation that Ontario's finance minister, Rod Phillips, was vacationing on the Caribbean island of St. Barts. Phillips resigned several days later.

Plett is now quarantining for 14 days, as required by Manitoba public health protocols.

A spokesperson for Conservative Sen. Salma Ataullahjan said the senator does not feel that Plett should resign as Senate leader.

"The government has not called for a clear ban on international travel, therefore those who made a choice to travel have to (follow) the guidelines on how to protect themselves and others before, during and after they travel," the spokesperson noted.

"Sen. Plett is self-isolating after his travel as he should, and that should not impact his position as leader of the Opposition."

Plett's office declined to comment on his future.

The Canadian Press contacted all 93 senators to see if any others vacationed outside the country.

Five, including White, did not respond to repeated email and phone messages. White did, however, tell the CBC on Wednesday that he was in quarantine in Finland, in accordance with that country's pandemic guidelines, after travelling there with his family on Dec. 28.

The other four non-responders included Sen. Scott Tannas, leader of the Canadian Senators Group, and his deputy leader, Josee Verner.

Verner aide Renée Farrell initially said she didn't know if the senator had travelled outside the country and promised to check with the senator. She did not respond to subsequent email and phone messages over several days.

The other non-responders were Jean-Guy Dagenais of the Canadian Senators Group, and Rosemary Moodie of the Independent Senators Group.

Meanwhile, Governor General Julie Payette said she has not left the country since the start of the pandemic in March and has restricted her movements in Canada to those needed to carry out her constitutional duties and to care for her teenage son and older parents in Montreal.

In a video message Thursday to Canadians, in which she urged people to continue to be vigilant, Payette said: "Like you, I have had to adapt to these unprecedented circumstances. As a scientist, I take epidemic outbreaks very seriously, and that is why we closed Rideau Hall at the outset of the pandemic to ensure the safety of our staff and the health of our visitors.

"Like you, I have strictly minimized contacts other than through digital means. "

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 7, 2021.

The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. Earlier version had Jean-Guy Dagenais as a Conservative senator. He is in fact a member of the Canadian Senators Group.