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EDITORIAL: A breach of public trust

"Poor judgment doesn't begin to cover Hughes' decision to jet off to a sunny beach."

Welcome to Alberta, where you don't have to follow COVID-19 guidelines if you are an elected official.

Despite recommendations from public health officials to avoid all non-essential travel, St. Albert city councillor Sheena Hughes packed her bags and boarded a plane with her immediate family to Mexico over the winter holidays. Hughes joined the seemingly ever-growing list of Alberta politicians who chose to leave Canada for the holidays while their constituents hunkered down at home. 

It took far too long for our provincial representatives to face any consequences for such a staggering lack of judgment. The fallout of Hughes' decision is still raining down.

There were rumblings about Hughes' winter getaway over social media before Mayor Cathy Heron shared her disappointment in a written statement on Sunday. That statement was the right move, but came far too late. Heron, just like Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, reacted after immense public backlash, when it was fashionable to do so. After all, the Mayor knew about Hughes' trip for at least 10 days before it caught the attention of residents. At the last council meeting on Dec. 21, instead of denouncing the trip, she told Hughes she was "jealous" of the lovely views our errant councillor was privy to in Mexico.

Alas, that positivity did not last into the new year. As public backlash grew, a resident filed a formal complaint against Hughes for violating the council code of conduct, and Heron told the Gazette Hughes' trip will not be swept under the rug.

Poor judgment doesn't begin to cover Hughes' decision to jet off to a sunny beach. But for a councillor with an established record of voting against public health restrictions at the local level, such as the face-covering bylaw, at least she's consistent.

Meanwhile, Albertans were forbidden from spending the holidays with their families or friends. Elected officials backed the advice of health experts and told them not to travel until it was necessary, all the while packing their own bags with sunscreen and phone chargers. From Mexico to Las Vegas to the Caribbean, it seems they had many destinations to choose from.

Leaving the country isn't illegal, but travellers have to jump through a few hoops to board. Multiple negative COVID-19 tests are required with 14-day isolation restrictions in place upon arrival to try to minimize transmission. No matter how stringent restrictions are, though, travelling comes with risk – that's the whole point of public health advisories against doing so.

Hughes' decision to flout health guidelines stings all the more because COVID-19 has hurt so many of our residents. Twenty-two St. Albertans' deaths had been recorded as of Tuesday. That's 22 grieving families and countless grieving friends, many of whom didn't get the closure they would usually get in non-pandemic times. Additionally, thousands of St. Albertans have had their finances negatively impacted by COVID-19 – golly, we bet they would all love to get away for a tropical vacation!

No matter the stance of our elected officials on public health restrictions, we should be able to trust them to – at very least – not pour salt on an open wound. Clearly it would be too optimistic to expect them to refrain from selfish and irresponsible behaviour. It appears we are not all in this together, after all.