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Labour Minister Lisa Raitt responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 23, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt responds during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on June 23, 2011. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Clock ticks on as MPs debate back-to-work bill for postal workers Add to ...

Were it not for the bags forming under people's eyes, it felt just like a regular day in the House of Commons.

But hours after most MPs believed they'd be on a plane heading off on summer vacations, many were still in Parliament at 6 a.m. ET Friday, debating legislation that would end the lockout for thousands of Canadian postal workers.

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The bill was introduced on Monday after Canada Post locked out its employees following a series of rotating strikes that began on June 3.

All parties hoped it would spur the two sides to reach a deal on their own, and the New Democrats had vowed to stretch out debate in order to buy them more time.

But talks between Canada Post and the union collapsed late Wednesday night.

The Tories said the bill must pass to avoid prolonged economic fallout. Since Thursday was the last scheduled sitting day for the House of Commons, they could not adjourn until the bill was dispatched to the Senate.

And so, vowed Labour Minister Lisa Raitt: "we will sit here as long as we need to sit here."

The NDP switched tactics, focusing their ire instead on the substance of the legislation instead. They oppose provisions that set wages and stringent arbitration guidelines.

Debate on the bill began early Thursday morning on procedural matters and as it stretched beyond sunset, storm clouds gathered over the Peace Tower.

Thunder rumbled and lightening flashed, perhaps a sign of the heated debate to come.

While blocks away a community barbecue festival was in full swing, inside the Parliament buildings, MPs were organizing their own dinner plans.

"Second reading of the bill to provide for the resumption of postal services begins," wrote Tory MP Peter Braid on Twitter.

"My House Duty shift is 9 p.m. to midnight. Pizza night."

What most Canadians think of when they catch a glimpse of parliament in action is the raucous jousting of the daily question period, when the green-felt seats are full and the air is crackling with debate.

Thursday evening, it had exactly that air. Every seat was full. Even Prime Minister Stephen Harper was in his seat for the vote setting the rules under which this debate would take place. "Union Jack" came the cry from the Tories as Opposition Leader Jack Layton got up to say his piece.

Up in the galleries sat members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, facing the New Democrats who were prepared to spend hours more championing their rights.

Members of the public trickled in and out of the seats devoted to them and pages wandered on and off the floor, bringing glasses of water with lemons or ice. Their time in the Commons was supposed to be up on Thursday as well, but now it was uncertain when they'd get to go home.

But once the Tories had spoken to their bill, most of them streamed out of the House.

Mr. Layton rose to his feet to give his response to the bill backed by all of his caucus colleagues.

Not a BlackBerry was thumbed as they listened in rapture to their leader, rising more than a half dozen times for standing ovations as he took his fellow politicians through a history of the NDP movement, unions, and their contribution to society.

A promise that the NDP would be introducing amendments to the bill set the rumour mill whirring - would there be a deal between the parties?

"I and our team will be available, regardless of the hour of debate, to talk about the possibility of a solution," Mr. Layton said.

But it was not to be. Forty minutes into his address, he moved a procedural motion only, to delay debate on the bill for another six months.

Speaker of the House Andrew Scheer gave up on game of chess he was playing on his iPad, and ceded his chair to a deputy as the MPs began debating that motion.

It was going to be a very long night.

Even into the wee hours of Friday morning, the calendar in the House of Commons still read Thursday, June 23.

It wasn't the fault of a clerk asleep at the desk - the intricacies of parliamentary procedure meant the day debate began was the day it would remain inside parliament until a vote on the bill takes place.

MPs had raged earlier this week that an extended sitting would force them to work June 24, which is St-Jean-Baptiste Day, a holiday in Quebec that has the status of a national holiday. But according to the Commons calendar, that day may never come.

Over the course of the night, Mr. Harper made several appearances in the Commons, once standing at the back row and once sitting in front, flanked by ministers as his official photographer snapped memento shots nearby.

Even as debate was derailed by points of order and secondary motions, NDP MPs lost none of their fire. There was also little of the off-topic tangents that often characterize the types of political manoeuvres, known as the filibuster.

"This is an action that profoundly hurts 50,000 families across the country," B.C.'s Peter Julian raged against the bill.

But both sides struggled to make the extended debate relevant outside the political bubble. They continually invoked emails, texts and calls they were receiving from their constituents purportedly stating their interest in the issue.

"There are millions of working people in Canada who want to see back-to-work legislation," said Saskatchewan Tory Tom Lukiwski.

In his speech, Conservative Dean Del Mastro, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, said the legislation must pass to avoid prolonged economic fallout..

"What we want is stability, we want the mail to flow. No more rotating strikes, no more harm to our community."

Manitoba New Democrat Niki Ashton defended the rights of unions when she rose to speak in the middle of the night.

"They make sure that our wages are fair. They make sure that we have safe workplaces. They make sure that we have health benefits and they make sure that our communities are better off."

Alberta New Democrat Linda Duncan argued that the prolonged debate in the Commons wasn't the fault of the NDP.

"It was the government that tried to force through this legislation in a rush manner and so we're forced to resort to mechanisms in order to represent our constituents."

By 1:40 a.m. Friday, there was one person left in the public gallery.

As their colleagues rose and sat to make their points, many MPs appeared to be trying to keep busy at their desk. Some read through files or tapped away on laptops.

At any given time, there were about three dozen MPs in the house, split between majority Tories and opposition. But the rest weren't far away.

Laughter from the lobbies kept wafting into the cool air of the Commons as the MPs wiled away the night, waiting for the vote.

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