Senior Ontario Liberal was on sunny holiday as he told candidates to cancel vacations

Milton Chan says that as a volunteer, he is exempt from party’s travel restrictions. Staffers of the financially strapped party cry ‘Nonsense!’

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The order came down before Christmas from Ontario Liberal Leader Steven Del Duca that anyone hoping to run as a candidate in the upcoming provincial election would be prohibited from traveling out of country for sunny winter getaways. No exceptions.

But some had already made plans to travel, and they were in a bind. One candidate said she called the Ontario Liberals’ chief returning officer, Milton Chan, in December, to explain that she had already purchased expensive non-refundable tickets. Unbeknownst to her at the time, Chan was on his own sunny vacation at the time. Still, he informed her that the edict was clear: forget about the vacation or forget about being a Liberal party candidate.

At the time, Chan was roughly a week into a six-week South American Christmas vacation that included stopovers in Colombia, sunny beaches in Rio de Janerio and Miami, and a week-long Caribbean cruise. He was not a candidate and the order didn’t apply to him.

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“I was told candidates would be removed if found traveling,” said the candidate, whom National Post agreed to grant anonymity to protect her from party retribution. “I lost $3,000 because my husband couldn’t go either.”

(The issue) has fueled tensions … leading some to question Del Duca’s judgment

News of Chan sunning and partying down south while Liberal candidates were being made to stay home spread quickly through party ranks. It has fueled tensions between certain party members and their leader, prompting some to question Del Duca’s judgment, just as the Liberals are preparing for a provincial election set to begin in the next few months.

Chan’s near-daily updates of his adventures posted to his publicly viewable Instagram account didn’t help.

Social media posts show he departed Toronto on Dec. 14 and returned home Jan. 26, just days after Del Duca called on Premier Doug Ford to take a stronger stand on the pandemic. Del Duca held a press conference calling not only for banning the unvaccinated from non-essential retail, including licensed cannabis shops and the LCBO, but also changing the criteria for fully vaccinated to three doses.

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Both Chan and the Ontario Liberal Party explained to National Post that his relationship to the party is as an “unpaid volunteer and supporter.” Party spokesperson Will Wuehr also said Chan has no role in advising Del Duca. He described Chan’s position as the chief returning officer as a “volunteer role that ensures meetings run by paid staff are done in accordance with the party’s constitution.”

“I am a private citizen and merely a volunteer for the party,” Chan wrote in an email to National Post. “I am neither seeking office nor employed by the party.”

But that isn’t consistent with how party insiders see his role. They described him as one of the Liberal leader’s closest advisers.

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Three long-time party staffers spoke to National Post under condition of anonymity to protect their jobs.

“Milton Chan may not be paid by the party, but he’s a top decision-maker,” said a party organizer. “He handles all nominations.”

Chan may not be paid by the party, but he’s a top decision-maker

The issue of paid-versus-unpaid is a moot point, two of them pointed out, since the party has little money to pay staffers.

“We’re a third-place party who were decimated in the last election,” said a second organizer. “We don’t have money to pay anyone; all of us are ‘volunteers’ at this stage.”

Chan is a long-time presence in the Ontario Liberals, having managed the party leadership campaigns of both Kathleen Wynne and Del Duca. He also served as chief-of-staff to then provincial indigenous affairs minister David Zimmer, and he was former prime minister Kathleen Wynne’s first chief strategist.

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Others in the party say Chan has set party policy — including Del Duca’s decision to ban candidates going away for Christmas. Two sources say Chan was on the call when the party leader informed candidates of the no-vacation rule.

And so, while candidates were spending winter at home, Chan was traveling, first to Bogota, Colombia and then to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with his posted photos showing him spending the lead-up to the new year lounging on the area’s white sandy beaches, dancing in packed nightclubs and mingling in crowded city streets.

One photo posted to Instagram by Chan that particularly ranked some was a selfie he took in front of a smorgasbord on Jan. 3 — the same day Ontario returned to lockdown as a response to skyrocketing Omicron case counts, shutting all restaurants and bars.

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“The irony of eating at a buffet restaurant today is not lost on me,” Chan wrote as the photos’s caption.

One party organizer said Chan’s highly public vacation has raised tough questions from donors and volunteers.

“I’m not going to be asking people for their money or their time when all of us are on lockdown — I’m on lockdown — and then you’ve got these photos,” he said.

“It’s the classic Liberal ‘let-them-eat-cake’ moment,” a long-time Liberal organizer said with a sigh.

Chan posted about an airport layover that was unpleasant without elite status passenger lounge access. He later arrived in Miami Beach to embark on the final leg of his vacation: a week-long Caribbean cruise.

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The federal government continues to urge Canadians to avoid cruise ship travel outside the country due to the high risk of contracting COVID-19. On Dec. 30, the US Centers for Disease Control raised the COVID-19 warning level for cruise ships to its highest level, regardless of a passenger’s vaccination status.

Chan has faced controversy before at Queen’s Park. In 2020, the publication Queen’s Park Today reported on calls to remove Chan from an internal party harassment investigation over allegations he discouraged racialized nominees for a key downtown riding in favor of the party’s preferred, white, male candidate. He was also accused of making anti-Black social media posts.

Facebook comments of Chan’s from 2016 expressed frustration at the Black Lives Matter sit-in that delayed that year’s Toronto Pride Parade, with Chan demanding organizers of the annual Caribbean festival “address homophobia in the Black community” and complaining of activist “out-of- town tourists” shouting homophobic slurs at members of Toronto’s LGBTQ community.

Chan told Queen’s Park Today that his 2016 post was made “imprudently with sarcasm,” and that an investigation by the Premier’s Office determined that “no further action was deemed necessary.”

Some party insiders say Del Duca has been made aware of their concerns about Chan. The leader’s continued loyalty to Chan has some questioning their confidence in his leadership.

“As an organizer, they are throwing as many unnecessary roadblocks in my way as possible, to the point where I feel like a hypocrite and a snake-oil salesman stumping for the party,” said one.

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