Niagara Catholic board to investigate complaint over board chair’s travel during lockdown

Larry Huibers Larry Huibers, chair of Niagara Catholic District School Board. TORSTAR FILE PHOTO

The Niagara Catholic District School Board is set to investigate board of trustees chair, Larry Huibers, for leaving the country during a provincial-wide lockdown.

Huibers, a trustee representing St. Catharines, declined a request for an interview. However, in a written statement he admitted to travelling twice, once in December when he left the province and another time in the first week of January when he travelled outside the country.

He did not disclose his reason for travelling outside Canada.

“It is true that I travelled outside the province in December prior to the announcement of the lockdown. I returned to Niagara before it began,” he said. “I also travelled outside of the country in the first week of January.”

A province-wide shutdown and stay-at-home order went into effect Jan. 14. Prior to that, the province was in various states of shutdown, with a travel advisory in effect.

The stay-at-home order was lifted just this week when Niagara was placed into grey zone designation, only one step below a total lockdown.

Travel advisories have been in effect for almost a year, with the federal government still calling on people to avoid non-essential travel outside the country. The land-border crossings with the United States have been closed to non-essential travel since March 2020.

The federal government requires anyone returning to Canada to provide a negative COVID-19 test taken no more than three days previous, and to then quarantine for 14 days.

“I realize that in travelling, my actions were contrary to the messaging that so many Niagara residents have followed, which is to stay home. However, I assure my constituents and my fellow trustees that my travel outside of the country was necessary,” said Huibers.

Huibers did not specify why his travel was necessary.

“My travel outside the country was not for a vacation. I complied with all local, federal and provincial requirements before, during and after my travel,” he said.

The Niagara Falls Review contacted the board’s director of education, Camillo Cipriano, for a comment.

A statement sent in response said: “Trustees are elected by ratepayers in the municipalities they serve and are accountable to their constituents. As such, the Director of Education offers no comment.”

The board will officially receive a code of conduct complaint submitted by a member of the public, at its upcoming meeting Feb. 23. The complaint has not been released publicly, but the board confirmed one was filed.

Numerous Canadian politicians and institutional leaders have run afoul of the travel restrictions imposed as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic in the past year.

Among them are former Ontario Finance Minister Rod Phillips, who travelled to the Caribbean over Christmas and later resigned his cabinet post.

Locally, the most high-profile case involved former Niagara Health hospital system CEO Dr. Tom Stewart who lost his job after travelling to the Dominican Republic over Christmas.

In the case of Huibers, according to Niagara Catholic board policy, an external investigation will be launched overseen by the board’s legal counsel.

“The board will direct board legal counsel to oversee an independent investigation conducted by an external investigator as selected by Board legal counsel,” the policy says.

All school board meetings are open to the public. However, Niagara Catholic said the portion of the meeting dealing with the complaint will be in-camera, as required by its policies.

“The discussion of any findings of the external investigation will take place in-camera. The decision coming out of that will be public. As well, there will be correspondence from the chair included in the correspondence section of the Board agenda,” the board said in a statement.

The board’s code of conduct policy states that if the investigation determines a trustee violated the policy, it may impose multiple sanctions that could include censure.

The trustee could also be barred from attending board or committee meetings and from sitting on board committees.

Huibers, elected as a trustee 2018, was named board chair in December by a “straw vote” of trustees.

He is also executive director of the Hamilton Housing Help Centre and chair of the Resource Association for Teens. The Niagara Falls Review reached out to the Hamilton Housing Help Centre for comment but did not receive a response.

Sean Vanderklis is a Niagara-based reporter for the Niagara Falls Review. His reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach him via email: [email protected]Slugline:LJI-ONT-CATHBOARDTRAVELHeadline:Niagara Catholic board to investigate complaint over board chair’s travel during lockdownPublished:19/02/2021 13:57