Hundreds of protesters blocked a downtown Montreal street where shareholders at ACE Aviation's annual meeting approved the plan to dissolve the holding company after less than 10 years of operation.
"They are going to distribute $350 million that belongs to us," Jean Poirier, vice-president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, said on the steps of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
While Air Canada struggles under the weight of more than $4.3 billion of debt and hefty pension obligations, ACE shareholders will split the spoils of selling its various divisions.
ACE barred reporters from its annual meeting. In a statement, it confirmed that shareholders approved the wind up of the company and plans to distribute between $250 million and $300 million in the coming weeks.
"The final distribution to shareholders will not occur earlier than mid-year 2013 in order to allow that any remaining contingent liabilities be settled or otherwise provided for," it said in the statement.
The protesters, many of them aerospace workers of insolvent aircraft maintenance company Aveos who just recently lost their jobs, were joined by a number of students.
They accused the Harper Conservatives of being in a conspiracy with Air Canada by not enforcing a law critics say requires heavy maintenance work to be done in Canada.
The also vented their anger at former airline CEO Robert Milton who earned millions of dollars by spinning off Air Canada into pieces, including Aveos.
Union leader Maxime Dolci denounced the government and a succession of Air Canada leaders, including current CEO Calin Rovinescu.
"They are responsible for the nightmare we are living right now," said the former Aveos employee and local union vice-president.
The protesters were supported by the NDP's Transportation critic and Bloc Quebecois Leader Daniel Paille, who denounced the federal government's hands-off attitude towards Aveos.
"The federal government's silence smells like a conspiracy, smells like abandonment, smells like treason," said the NDP's Alexandre Boulerice.
Paille said only Canada would abandon the world's third-largest aerospace sector — after Seattle and Toulouse, France — by claiming Aveos' battles are between private companies.
He said the government must force Air Canada to respect the federal Air Canada Public Participation Act requiring it to maintain heavy maintenance operations in Montreal, Toronto and Winnipeg.
"We ask the government to respect the law, it's also their job and we ask the Quebec government to continue to support — but a little stronger please — to prevent the loss of the advantage we have in the world."
The province said it's willing to provide financial support to potential buyers of Aveos as long as they maintain jobs in Montreal.
It is also taking Air Canada to court, aiming to force it to adhere to the law enacted when the airline was privatized in 1988. Canada's largest carrier said it respects the law by employing 2,400 workers at its own maintenance operations in Canada.
Aveos workers said they were nervous, yet hopeful that they would get their jobs back as the company is sold over the next two months as part of a court-supervised liquidation process.
"Of course I'm concerned. I don't know who is going to come in there," said George Kuehnl, 50, a 23-year Air Canada employee who was forced to shift to Aveos last summer.
The dismantling of Aveos is expected to begin next week.
Quebec Superior Court Justice Marck Schrager is being asked to approve the sale of redundant parts to Inventory Navigators for US$593,450 before tax.
At the meeting Wednesday, shareholders also approved the conversion of ACE class A shares, which are reserved for non-Canadian residents, and class B shares into one voting class.
ACE's main assets are $351 million of cash and equivalents, 31 million Class B voting shares in Air Canada (TSX:AC.B) and warrants to purchase Air Canada shares.
Aviation Holdings Inc. (TSX:ACE.B), or ACE, was formed in 2004 to be the airline's parent company after Air Canada sought court protection in April 2003.
ACE has sold most of its assets, including the companies now known as Chorus Aviation (TSX:CHR.B) and loyalty card provider Aeroplan, operating as Aimia (TSX:AIM).