Radio-Canada head travelled to Florida despite federal travel advisory

CBC/Radio-Canada’s executive vice-president of French services is apologizing for travelling to Florida last month despite the federal government strongly warning against non-essential travel during the pandemic.

Michel Bissonnette, who oversees French-language television, radio and digital content for the public broadcaster, owns property in Miami and stayed there Dec. 2 to Dec. 27. He both worked and vacationed while south of the border, said Radio-Canada spokesperson Marc Pichette in an email.

The story was first reported on by the National Post Thursday morning.

“Since the start of the pandemic in March, he has made one trip there to tend to business regarding this property,” said Pichette.

“For all the time he was in Miami, he never went to any restaurant or any retail store. Upon his return, he quarantined for 14 days. Mr. Bissonnette followed both the corporation’s policies and provincial health requirements.”

The Canadian government has had an advisory in place urging against non-essential international travel since March 14, 2020.

“Canadian citizens and permanent residents are advised to avoid all non-essential travel outside of Canada until further notice to limit the spread of COVID-19,” it reads.

“The best way to protect yourself, your family and those most at risk of severe illness from COVID-19 in our communities is to choose to stay in Canada.”

CBC/Radio-Canada’s own internal policy also urges against travel.

“We strongly recommend that employees refrain from travelling abroad,” the policy says.

“Should you decide to travel outside the country, please inform your supervisor before you go and after you return.”

CBC president also travelled to U.S.

In a statement Thursday afternoon, Bissonnette said he understands the reaction to his trip given the advisory.

He apologized, in French, to employees and the public.

Kim Trynacity, CBC branch president of the Canadian Media Guild, said while the trip might not have broken any laws, it runs against public health advice.

“Leaders have a responsibility to set an example,” she said in an email.

“As we saw recently with all the politicians who went on vacation during Christmas, they weren’t breaking any laws, but it just doesn’t look good and is contrary to what healthcare professionals advise.”

As reported by Canadaland back in December, Catherine Tait, president of CBC, has also travelled to the U.S. since the international travel advisory was put in place.

President and CEO of CBC/Radio-Canada Catherine Tait, pictured at 2018 conference, travelled to New York in March to care for her husband, who lives there and had undergone a medical procedure, and again in November. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

According to a statement, Tait travelled to New York on March 29, 2020, to care for her husband, who lives there and had undergone a medical procedure.

CBC spokesperson Leon Mar said she worked there until June 8, when she returned to her home in Ottawa. He said she went back to New York Nov. 13 and returned to Canada on Dec. 27. 

“This travel was done with the knowledge of CBC/Radio-Canada’s Board of Directors. Ms. Tait did not ask for or receive any special exemption from the government for her travel and continues to follow all quarantine requirements,” said the statement.

In a followup email to CBC, Mar said Tait has no plans to travel to the U.S. in the future.

Shachi Kurl, president of the Angus Reid Institute, told CBC News, that seven in 10 Canadians have postponed or cancelled trips and family gatherings at home and abroad since the pandemic began and they tend to look at those who disobey the travel advice as entitled and elitist. 

“Canadians are saying, ‘Look, we’re staying home. Why why do we get the sense that everyone else or a lot of other folks out there in this country are coming and going as they please?'” she told CBC News.

Politicians questioned over international travel

A number of public officer holders have been embroiled in controversy for travelling abroad. 

Last month Ontario Progressive Conservative MPP Rod Phillips stepped down from his high-profile job as finance minister after returning from a controversial Caribbean vacation while the province is under strict lockdown measures.

Federally, five MPs are known to have left the country in December. Three of those MPs — the NDP’s Niki Ashton and Liberals Kamal Khera and Sameer Zuberi — did so because of family members who were sick or who recently had passed away. 

Calgary-Signal Hill Conservative MP Ron Liepert travelled to Palm Desert, Calif., on two occasions since March to address what his office called “essential house maintenance issues.” Liepert, who previously served as Alberta’s health and wellness minister, owns a home in the city. 

Conservative MP David Sweet resigned Jan. 4 from his position as chair of the House of Commons ethics committee over his holiday travel to the U.S.

Colin Furness, an infection control epidemiologist and assistant professor at the University of Toronto, said the spate of reports about high-profile Canadians travelling internationally is worrisome.

“I’m gravely disappointed, alarmed and almost growing panicky to be honest. We’ve known from the beginning, since February, that travel was a serious problem,” he said in an interview. 

“People seem to feel that travel is a right or governments’ feel that taking away travel is not a politically wise thing to do. Both of those views are very harmful in my opinion.” 

Senate leaders have faced questions about leaving the country for sunnier spots.

Senate Opposition Leader Don Plett spent part of the Christmas holidays in Mexico, and Sen. Scott Tannas, leader of the Canadian Senators Group, confirmed he travelled to Hawaii during the holidays.

As part of its coverage, CBC News reached out to every senator to find out if they left the country.

“I am wondering whether you are doing a similar survey of all CBC employees regarding travel as they are also paid and funded by federal tax dollars,” responded Sen. Pamela Wallin, who added she has not travelled for more than a year.

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