COLD LAKE - Cold Lake's Mayor Craig Copeland sees it as a split decision.
"It looks like it's about 50-50 right now, and we've had phone calls to city hall," Copeland told LakelandToday, as he explained reactions to his recent trip to Florida with his 83-year old dad to set the senior Copeland up at his winter home. The trip was taken as provincial advisories remain in place, recommending residents only travel out of the country for emergency reasons. Criticism about his trip centres on his position as an elected municipal official holding the public trust.
But Copeland sees it as more of that split decision, saying his roles are split between personal and professional duties. He says the 18-day trip in December was part of his personal family duty — not a holiday taken by an elected representative.
"I put on my 'son' hat and helped my dad," Copeland said, returning to Canada several days ago and facing some backlash for the decision to travel.
Explaining it the way he sees it, Copeland says the trip to Florida wasn't a vacation. In fact, he and his wife cancelled their actual planned family vacation over the holidays.
"The trip to Florida was for me to get him set up. I went there to take care of him, to set up his house and to get him out of the cold," he said, explaining that while he was there, he painted the inside of his dad's place, bought groceries and cooked."
It wasn't a holiday, he explained.
"I was so bored, I painted my dad's main level and I cooked — and that was my 18 days down there," he said.
Like being at home
Defending the trip further, Copeland said being in Florida with his dad was no different than being in the Lakeland with him — except for the more appealing climate that is better for the octogenarian's overall health.
After flights that Copeland said were "tight" with layered COVID restrictions, he and his father remained in "a bubble" similar to the one they have in Cold Lake. Pandemic measures in Florida were stringent, with constant reminders to the public to socially distance, wash hands and wear masks. Going to the grocery store in Florida was "no different" than going to Sobey's in Cold Lake, Copeland said.
"We just moved our bubble to Florida ... People were being very cautions of what they were doing. It really was similar to what's happening in Lac La Biche or Cold Lake, people are going to their food stores and drug stores, but really just hunkering down and enjoying the TV."
Some city work
Although he went to Florida with his 'son' hat on, Copeland did conduct some municipal business while he was there.
"I chaired a meeting. We had a planning and development meeting. I chaired that meeting via Internet," he said, explaining that there had been "talk" about his planned trip with senior city staff and council.
"I was still in touch with the CAO and doing my job."
Copeland had also signed off vacation time from his full-time job with the Cold Lake Fish Hatchery.
He is candid and unapologetic for the decision to go with his dad.
"I knew that people might not agree," he admitted at one point of Thursday's interview with LakelandToday, going on to say that he put his family commitment first, regardless of the possible criticism. "If I thought it would get this much attention — I still would've gone to Florida. My dad is very important to me. He's my dad."
In fact, Copeland says he's more concerned right now about how his dad will react to the attention the Florida trip has brought.
"He's going to take this pretty hard, that his son is getting stories written," said Copeland, defending his dad, a widower, and a long-time Cold Lake resident who ran an accounting firm until his retirement. "Why is my dad being penalized just because his son is the mayor? . . . I know people aren't going to cut me any slack, but he is going to have a hard time with all the noise coming out of this."
Some good news coming from the trip, says Copeland, is that his dad will be eligible to get the coronavirus vaccine much sooner in Florida than he would in Alberta. Copeland estimates his dad will get the injection before the end of this month.
When asked if he regrets the decision at all, Copeland re-directed his answer toward the local economy, saying that if people avoid air travel, then the airline industry as well as possible future developments for the Cold Lake region will face significant hardships.
"We have to make sure we can still travel in and around this province. If we try to shut down air service, we are going to have a huge problem to get these carriers back," he said, switching back to his his 'mayor' hat to defend air travel in general during the pandemic. "As a mayor trying to get commercial air service into our community, well, airlines want to see people travelling, right?"
Acknowledging that many Albertans have cancelled trips — going so far to say he thinks people are "scared to death" right now over the pandemic, Copeland is sticking with his 'family-first' response, even doubling down on any of the split reactions his recent trip has caused.
"I've got nothing to hide — if dad needs me, I'll be going back down there in April. I'm not going to hide from it. It's important to our family," he said.
News of the Cold Lake mayor's trip during the pandemic comes as several provincial officials, MLAs and UCP ministers have been reprimanded or fired — as well as one minister who resigned her position — after it was discovered they had vacationed abroad. Speaking to reporters on Thursday night, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said provincial officials who hold positions of significant public trust had "terrible judgment" when they left for holidays, going against their own government's pandemic travel advisories.
"It was insulting for government leaders to holiday outside of the country," Kenney said on Thursday night, expressing an outrage shared by many Albertans.
With a focus only on provincial staff and elected officials, Kenney said there is an expectation for for those who are in "significant positions of public trust" to be held to a higher standard.
"That trust has been broken," admitted the premier.
The City of Cold lake council reconvenes for their first meeting of 2021 this coming Tuesday night.
A special meeting at 5:30 p.m. is scheduled to take place before the regular council meeting at 6. The agenda for the special meeting relates to future live-streaming and online coverage of council meetings. There was no agenda package available for the regular meeting by the original publication of this story.
Copeland has been Cold Lake's mayor since 2007, re-elected in 2010, 2013 and 2017. In 2018 he put in a failed bid to become the MLA for the Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul provincial constituency.