This week, I’m not going to use this space to condemn Niki Ashton. I am going to discuss her recent voyage to Greece - along with several other trips out of country by other politicians - but I’m going to do so like a grown-up. It’s the only way we should talk about this.
I’m not going to call for her, or them, to be fired, nor am I going to call for any specific sort of punishment. I’m a newspaper hack - it’s not my place to do that.
We’ve been told that Ashton left the north to travel to Greece to see her ill grandmother - people close to her who I know have vouched for that. In doing so, she left Canada at a time when travel of any type can be seen as not only irresponsible, but dangerous.
Ashton’s trip was not, as it stands, illegal - as far as we can tell. Ashton’s trip was also not done as a vacation, unlike travel conducted by at least five Alberta MLAs, a few MPs and Senators and the now-former Ontario finance minister.
I would not call for Ashton to resign - at least, not as long as other political figures whose offenses were more egregious keep their jobs. I know there are some vocal people who have been looking for any excuse at all to kick Ashton out of office - I’d ask northerners upset about her trip to remember it the next time there’s a federal election.
I understand why she left. Really, I get it. If I were in her shoes, at any other time, I would go too. That being said, “would” is not the same as “should” and this is not a normal time.
I know a thing or two about not being able to see ill loved ones these days.
Regular readers will know that my father now lives in a dementia ward near Winnipeg. Flin Flonners and Snow Lakers may remember Garry, the union president, the guy with a Grade 8 education and a bristly mustache who would go toe-to-toe with mining executives, the hard-bargaining, occasionally hard-drinking man who never saw a way to kick corporate ass he didn’t like.
I don’t remember that. I remember my Pop, a man who seemed brash and intimidating on the outside but who was as warm and tender as a Care Bear. I remember him tying my skates in the dressing room growing up. I remember him teaching me how to drive, watching big games and bad movies, spending time out on the deck with him, dart in hand, smirk on his face, sharing dirty jokes in the dark.
He barely remembers any of that anymore.
The last chance I had to visit him was back in July, back when it looked like COVID-19 was about to die out in Manitoba. Every precaution possible was still being taken. All the visits took place outside at uncomfortable beige tables and you had to stay six feet apart. I’ve always loved hugging Pop – he’s a genuine loving man of a certain generation who enjoys a hug, but can’t let you see it. I couldn’t hug him. I miss that every day.
He had a hard time remembering me last summer. I am his only son – we always joked that one was enough. Last summer, he thought I was his brother, a man about a half-century my senior who I look nothing like. I couldn’t show it outwardly, but inside, it broke me. Who will I be the next time I see him?
I want to see him. I want to hug him, even if he doesn’t know who I am, to tell him it’s going to be okay, even if I don’t know if it will be. I want to pay back everything he did for me, even a little bit, but I can’t. We’re eight hours apart, but COVID-19 has stretched that distance to lightyears.
I know why I can’t go see him. I get it. COVID-19 restrictions are a necessary evil right now. We’re seeing cases decline in most of the province. We’re choking the disease off.
I know of others who have lost their loved ones, people who have died more or less alone, people who couldn’t even go to funerals because of gathering size limits.
Not being able to see loved ones is cruel and inhuman - but unfortunately, so is COVID-19.
To travel at a time like this sends an awful message. It implies that leaders are not subject to the same rules and standards as the people they govern. It implies that Ashton’s right to see her yiayia overrides my right to see my Pop. It implies that rules and standards around travel are built in such a way that a small bourgeoisie with means and connections can completely pass rules wrote to cover common people.
Ashton’s decision also serves to empower that loud minority of mouthbreathers who believe COVID-19 doesn’t exist or is overblown and that current health measures are unnecessary - after all, if she’s travelling, why can’t I travel, or avoid wearing a mask, or invite my whole family over for a movie night? Travelling right now serves to undermine every health measure that has been so effective in suffocating COVID-19.
I’m not angry that she gets to see her yiayia. What I’m angry about is so many other people, particularly in the north, have not been afforded that same luxury. I’m angry that people have had their loved ones die, either due to COVID-19 or other causes and were not able to be there, for comfort, for help, to show them they were loved when it mattered most.
Ashton will have to live with the fallout and regain northerners’ trust. It will not be easy - it might not even be doable. An elected official is supposed to be held to a higher standard.
Being unable to see those you care about while others dance around the rules is not easy, either.
As for my Pop, I don’t know if he’ll know who I am next time I see him. I have not seen him in order to keep him safe. When the vaccine becomes available in the north, I’m getting mine as soon as I can, getting the “all-clear”, and hitting the road to see him - and may whatever deity you believe in have mercy on your soul if you get in my way then.
Pop taught me to stand my ground. Even if our leaders can’t be arsed to follow what is ethically right, I can and will. It’s what he taught me. By the book.
As a northerner, I understand why Niki Ashton left, but in doing so, I lost a lot of trust in her and I don’t know if it will come back.