Brian Pallister has always been a difficult man to get to know.

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This article was published 14/4/2016 (2262 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.


Brian Pallister has always been a difficult man to get to know.

As leader of the Progressive Conservative party, he tends to keep to himself. He struggled early on when it came to building relationships with his caucus. And he had a habit of disappearing off the grid for extended periods of time during which, it seemed, few people knew where he was.

In a somewhat surprising development, the details of Pallister's time away from politics are now coming into focus.

A CBC News report revealed that contrary to his repeated claims, the leader of the Progressive Conservative party has spent a significant amount of time out of the country visiting a vacation home he owns in Costa Rica. The CBC reported that since he became leader, he has spent 240 days in the Central American country, or very nearly one in five days.

Why did the CBC think to track down Pallister's travel records? The Tory leader was quoted in a Free Press interview published April 2 saying that the last time he left Canada was in the fall of 2015 when he made an annual family trip to a bar in Maida, N.D. The CBC later discovered through immigration data that he had been to Costa Rica twice since the trip to North Dakota: a 25-day trip over Christmas and New Year's, and an 11-day visit at the end of January into February.

Pallister's most recent assertions about visits to his vacation home became somewhat newsworthy because they were the latest in a series of odd and apparently erroneous statements he has made over the past two years about how often he is out of the country and away from the business of being a politician.

Series of odd statements

They are odd not because of the frequency or duration of his visits. Pallister is a self-made man of means who should not be judged or criticized for having the resources to own property in a tropical paradise. They're odd because, for reasons that are not readily apparent, he won't respond truthfully when he's asked about the frequency and duration of his trips.

This pattern of oddness goes back to the summer of 2014 when Pallister failed to make any public appearance during dramatic summer flooding that hit central and western Manitoba in the first week of July. This seemed to be a very odd strategy for a man who was at that point already campaigning to fill the role of premier.

At first, Pallister's office refused to respond to queries about his exact location during the floods. He finally made himself available on July 21 for an interview, during which he refused to say where he was. He did, however, offer a rather unusual explanation about why he did not return to the flood zone with haste to show support for flood-ravaged Manitobans.

Pallister said he would be politicizing the natural disaster if he made a high-profile tour during the worst part of the flash floods. "Manitobans are not asking for photo ops," Pallister said. "What they're asking for is foresight."

At that time, the Free Press did not have confirmation about where exactly Pallister was during the floods. We did know that he and his family owned vacation properties in Ontario and Costa Rica. However, a week after the first column we obtained confirmation from several PC party sources that Pallister was, indeed, in Costa Rica. A request for a followup interview was refused. A few days after that, at a weekly news conference, Pallister was asked again about where he was during the floods.

Pallister claimed wedding trip during off-the-record comments

Pallister refused yet again to provide any details, but on his way out of the room he came over to me, asked if he could talk off the record, and whispered that he had been at a family wedding out of province. The Free Press did not report this explanation at Pallister's request, but we were somewhat surprised when, in a year-end interview, he made the family wedding story public. "I was at a family wedding in July, the first week of July was when the unprecedented rainfall occurred one day in parts of western Manitoba," he told Free Press reporters Larry Kusch and Bruce Owen.

The Free Press would eventually publish a column in 2015 in which it was reported that Pallister was, in fact, in Costa Rica during the summer floods. When that report appeared, Pallister complained directly to the newspaper claiming that it was completely false.

Pallister was not available to comment on the CBC story on Thursday, but in a statement provided to reporters, a spokeswoman said the Tory leader had erred in his recollection of the date of the family wedding in the summer of 2014, and his failure to confirm visits to Costa Rica this past winter were "an oversight, an unfortunate lapse in memory."

At this stage of the election campaign, it would be foolish to suggest that this unusual story will have any impact on the outcome on April 19. This story does not involve a matter of public policy, or taxpayer money, or an abuse of power by an elected official. It certainly does not defuse or mitigate the criticisms the Tories have levelled at NDP Leader Greg Selinger for his decision to raise the PST to fund infrastructure after promising he would never undertake such a measure.

Costa Rica home is defensible

However, it adds an element of discomfort to the public persona of a leader who, remarkably, continues to lag well behind his party in popular support.

The only word that captures this entire episode is "odd."

Odd because Pallister's decision to build a home in Costa Rica, and visit it frequently, is totally defensible. Odd as well because it is entirely reasonable that being in Costa Rica, he was unable to get back to Manitoba in time to visit the flood zone in 2014.

What is less defensible, and somewhat inexplicable, is his decision to mislead people when asked directly about how much time he spends in Costa Rica, and to generate an erroneous excuse about where he was when the summer floods hit in 2014.

This is not a story that will likely affect the number of people who will vote Tory next week. It is, however, an interesting glimpse into the man who, by all accounts, will be premier.

Dan Lett

Dan Lett

Born and raised in and around Toronto, Dan Lett came to Winnipeg in 1986, less than a year out of journalism school with a lifelong dream to be a newspaper reporter.