Canadians have paid more than $125,000 over the last four years flying the spouse of former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould back and forth across the country under the government’s designated traveller program.
A Global News probe of MP expenditures and claims through the program revealed Wilson-Raybould claimed more than any of her former cabinet colleagues — and was the only non-Conservative MP among the top six highest claimants under the program, who all claimed above $100,000 in spousal travel expenses.
Taxpayers covered the cost of 138 individual flights for her husband between her Vancouver-Granville riding and Ottawa, as well as other Canadian cities, since the Liberals won power in the 2015 federal election: 18 flights in 2015-2016, 45 in 2016-2017, 39 in 2017-2018 and 36 in 2018-2019.
In all, her claims for spousal travel cost taxpayers $125,755, ranging from flights costing less than $1,000 to those clocking in at more than $3,000.
In comparison, the entire 34-member federal cabinet — not including Wilson-Raybould — claimed $421,504 in designated traveller expenses for their spouses over the course of the mandate.
On average, that breaks down to $12,397 in claims per cabinet member.
If Wilson-Raybould’s claims for her husband are added to the cabinet total, it lands in at $547,259.
That means Wilson-Raybould’s claims amounted to 23 per cent of the entire cabinet total over the four fiscal years of the Trudeau government.
Global News requested an interview with Wilson-Raybould to ask why her claims were so much higher than her cabinet colleagues, including those from the same geographic area in Metro Vancouver.
WATCH: Jody Wilson-Raybould reacts to report on spousal travel expenses
Wilson-Raybould declined to be interviewed but sent a written statement instead.
“Throughout my tenure as a Member of Parliament and as a former Cabinet Minister, my husband and I have worked hard to maintain a semblance of work/life balance that includes being able to be together in the same city as much as possible,” Wilson-Raybould wrote.
“His support has been particularly important to me during the events of the past eight months and I am grateful that Tim’s schedule has allowed him the flexibility to travel to Ottawa. I am very appreciative that there are House of Commons provisions that permit spouses to travel as designated travellers.”
WATCH: Canadians have paid more than $125,000 over the last four years flying the spouse of Wilson-Raybould back and forth across the country
Aaron Wudrick, federal director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said he wants to see Wilson-Raybould provide an explanation for why her expenses were so much higher than those of her cabinet colleagues from the same area of the country.
“The fact that there’s such a big gap suggests we should look at why,” he said. “There may be a legitimate reason, there might not be. But the fact that there’s such a big gap certainly gives rise to some questions that I think Ms. Wilson-Raybould should be answering.”
What are designated travellers?
The designated traveller program operates under the same system that covers the costs of members of Parliament travelling back and forth between their ridings, or to other specific locations such as Washington and New York City as needed for their parliamentary roles.
Members of Parliament get a certain number of what’s known as travel points to cover the cost of their work-related travel — one point equals one round trip between their riding and Ottawa, or Ottawa and another location associated with their parliamentary work.
Members of Parliament can share those points with another person — their designated traveller.
WATCH (Aug. 9, 2016): Mike Duffy back in the Senate claiming living expenses
In most cases, this is the member of Parliament’s spouse or another relative (though it does not have to be a family member), and designating the person as such lets the person use some of those points to expense the cost of their own travel.
This is allowed in cases where the designated traveller represents the MP at an event or where travel is to reunite the member of Parliament with their family, and under the system the designated traveller can fly in business class on flights longer than two hours.
But the program has come under scrutiny in the past because of the costs associated with transporting unelected individuals on the taxpayer dime.
Over the course of the last four years, members of Parliament spent a total of $4,552,955 transporting their designated travellers across the country.
That does not include their children, who are classified separately as dependents.
In 2014-2015, that cost was $1.2 million while in 2013-2014 it was $1.5 million.
That was down from $2.2 million in 2012-2013.
At the same time, members of Parliament and their families have the option of travelling for free on Via Rail under a longstanding policy with the Crown corporation.
According to a spokesperson for Via Rail, family members of MPs can travel for free in economy class even if they are not accompanying the MP — if they are accompanying the MP, who gets free travel in business class, the family can join them for free in business class.
“Regardless of the presence of the MP during travel, spouse/partners and dependents of members of Parliament can only travel at no cost, and the trip must be in Economy if the booking is made within one day of departure,” wrote Marie-Anna Murat, spokesperson for the Crown corporation, in an email.
“At other times, they can travel at 50 per cent off the selected fare in all classes at all times (once again, regardless of the presence of the MP during travel).”
How much did other cabinet members claim?
Despite that, several members of the Trudeau cabinet claimed tens of thousands of dollars in expenses for their spouses through the designated traveller program despite their ridings being located along one of the most popular Via Rail routes that run straight into Ottawa — the Quebec-Windsor corridor.
Organized Crime and Border Security Minister Bill Blair had the highest claim of cabinet ministers who represent ridings along that corridor — he claimed $30,540 in travel expenses for his wife over four years, for a total of 47 round trips between Ottawa and his riding of Scarborough–Southwest.
Global News reached out to Blair on Monday morning asking for clarity on why he claimed designated travel expenses for his wife when his riding is located along that popular Via Rail corridor and a free travel option was available.
His office said Blair’s wife was doing relevant work and the amount she claimed is in keeping with others who did the role before her.
“As the chair of the all-party Parliamentary Spouses Association for the past three years, Minister Blair’s wife has helped organize and host foreign guests, dignitaries and their spouses while they are in Ottawa,” said Blair’s issues manager, Jordan Crosby.
“The Parliamentary Spouses Association also does tremendous work in balancing parliamentarians’ responsibilities to both their job and families while providing a support network to those who frequently travel and/or represent ridings outside of Ottawa.”
Crosby continued, adding: “The costs incurred under the Designated Traveller category are commensurate with what has been charged by other members of Parliament whose spouses were either chair or who otherwise have served with the Parliamentary Spouses Association, and has adhered to the House of Commons’ guidelines. We will continue to monitor all expenses closely in order to ensure they are appropriately expensed to taxpayers.”
Seniors’ Minister Filomena Tassi was the runner up in that category, claiming $25,488 in travel costs for her husband for 51 round trips between her Hamilton West–Ancaster–Dundas riding.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau, who represents the downtown riding of Toronto Centre, also claimed $20,852 in designated traveller expenses for his wife, Nancy McCain, for 30 round trips between their riding and Ottawa over the last four years.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, in contrast, claimed no designated traveller expenses over the course of the four years between her riding of University–Rosedale and Ottawa. Nor did Minister of Science and Sport Kirsty Duncan, who represents Etobicoke North.
Transport Minister Marc Garneau, Attorney General David Lametti, Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, Agriculture Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, House Leader Bardish Chagger, Status of Women Minister Maryam Monsef and Small Business and Tourism Minister Mary Ng also claimed no designated traveller expenses over the course of the last four years.
Top cabinet claimants for spousal travel under the designated traveller program were Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay, who claimed $46,367 in travel expenses for his wife from his Cardigan, PEI riding.
A spokesperson for MacAulay provided an emailed statement when asked for an interview with the minister.
“The policy for designated travelers is designed to keep families together and allow parliamentarians to spend much-needed time with their loved ones and as Minister MacAulay’s duties have required him to spend more time away from home, his wife has joined him on a number of occasions,” his office said.
“All travel was within the rules and guidelines set out by the House of Commons.”
Procurement Minister Carla Qualtrough came in second, claiming $45,773 in designated traveller expenses for her husband and was the highest-claiming Vancouver-area cabinet member — yet her claim still represented only 33 per cent of what Wilson-Raybould claimed for spousal travel from the same area.
Other Vancouver-area cabinet ministers claimed even less: Treasury Board President Joyce Murray claimed $36,993 in expenses for her husband, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan claimed $15,655 for his wife, and Fisheries Minister Jonathan Wilkinson claimed just $5,909.
Indigenous Services Minister Seamus O’Regan came in third overall out of cabinet members, claiming $45,659 in designated traveller expenses for his husband.
But his husband, Stelios Doussis, worked as general manager at the upscale political hang-out spot, Riviera — located just steps away from Parliament Hill — for part of that time.
According to his LinkedIn profile, Doussis worked at Riviera from Sept. 2016 to Sept. 2018.
A spokesperson for O’Regan said that date is an error and he actually resigned in Oct. 2017 — his decision to do so was publicized amid sexual misconduct allegations against the co-owner.
During the three fiscal years that cover the listed dates of employment at Riviera, the member of Parliament expenditure reports indicate Doussis took 61 individual flights in total between Ottawa and St. John’s, N.L.: eight in 2015-2016, 26 in 2016-2017, 19 in 2017-2018 and eight in 2018-2019.
However, it’s not possible from the reports to determine how many of those were specifically while he was employed in Ottawa versus at any other point in the overlapping fiscal years. The listings for designated traveller claims do not show the specific dates for each expensed trip but rather list the number of trips and destinations of those within a fiscal year.
Global News asked O’Regan’s office for an interview to address how many of those trips were while Doussis worked in Ottawa.
Instead, his office sent an emailed statement.
“The House of Commons policy for designated travelers is vital in keeping families together in a job in which Members of Parliament spend much of the year away from their loved ones,” a spokesperson for O’Regan wrote.
“The rules that pertain to travel for family members, and that apply to all Members of Parliament, were followed in full.”
Wudrick said the question of the timeline should be clarified by O’Regan.
“I think the purpose of the travel benefit is to make sure that your spouse is close to you, to make sure that families aren’t apart,” he said.
“If your spouse is here in Ottawa with you, it does beg the question about what you’re spending that travel benefit on. Is it really just for fun? That would not be an appropriate use of that benefit.”
Global’s Max Hartshorn also contributed reporting for this article