The federal government has served notice that it will have back-to-work legislation on Air Canada's contract disputes ready as early as next week.
On Friday afternoon, the government served notice on parliament's order paper that it will have a bill prepared on the continuation of air services.
In an interview set to air on CBC Radio's The House program on Saturday morning, Labour Minister Lisa Raitt told host Evan Solomon that there is a mandatory 48-hour notice period for any new legislation.
So if the government wants to act early next week when a lockout deadline between the airline and its 3,000 pilots was originally set to expire, Ottawa must move swiftly to introduce the bill. The airline's 8,600 ground staff, which includes mechanics, baggage handlers and cargo agents, had also threatened to go on strike beginning at 12:01 a.m. on Monday, March 12.
"We wanted to make sure at least we had something," Raitt said in the interview.
Opposition politicians quickly weighed in on the government's move.
"If the government feels Air Canada is an essential service, they have to provide a fair arbitration process," interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae tweeted.
By putting the bill on the order paper Friday, MPs could see it tabled in the House of Commons as early as Tuesday. It would then be up to the government to decide when to bring it up for debate.
Dave Ritchie, the Canadian general vice-president of the International Machinists and Aerospace Workers, which represents the Air Canada ground crews, said he was not surprised by the move.
"And once again the heavy-handed government is upon us," Ritchie told CBC News.
After Air Canada made a surprise move on Thursday to lock out its pilots as of early Monday morning, Raitt referred the file to the Canada Industrial Relations Board to investigate. In effect, that withdrew the threat of a disruption during the key March break travel season because no work stoppage is legally possible as long as the board is investigating.
"Even though we've referred it to the CIRB they could come back at any moment with a decision," Raitt told Solomon in the interview. So the government moved ahead with the new tactic on Friday to make sure they had other options to ensure the Canadian economy can't be unduly harmed by a grounding of Canada's major carrier.
"Quite frankly, we don't know whether the CIRB will make their decision on Monday," Raitt said.
Raitt reiterated the government's position that while they support the collective bargaining process, they aren't willing to put the Canadian economy at risk because of a shutdown of Canada's largest airline.
"We know a work stoppage there is going to cause difficulty for the Canadian economy," Raitt said. "It's also going to cause difficulty for Canadian families on March break."
"You're going to have a million passengers flying Air Canada in the next 10 days," Raitt said.
Earlier on Friday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters at an event in Toronto that the government was not willing to let Air Canada's service grind to a halt.
"I'll be darned if we will now sit by and let the airline shut itself down," Harper told reporters on Friday.
Ottawa made the same CIRB move late last year when Air Canada's flight attendants were on the verge of striking. When asked Friday how Ottawa sees fit to take such an active role in the business dealings of a private corporation, Harper noted that Air Canada's status as Canada's dominant carrier makes its situation unlike other companies.
During the recession, he noted, the company specifically asked the federal government for assistance in a number of areas because of the danger to the economy that a shutdown would have presented.
"As much as there's a side of me that doesn't like to do this, I think these actions are essential to keep the airline flying," Harper said. "My concern is not management or labour, my concern is the broader Canadian public and I think the public overwhelmingly expects the government to act."
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