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An Emirates Air jet sits at the terminal beside an Air Canada plane at Pearson airport in Toronto on Nov. 19, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)
An Emirates Air jet sits at the terminal beside an Air Canada plane at Pearson airport in Toronto on Nov. 19, 2010. (J.P. MOCZULSKI/J.P. Moczulski for The Globe and Mail)

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Air Canada official, Tory MP blast Bob Rae's UAE sojourn Add to ...

Bob Rae is escalating the dispute with the United Arab Emirates over landing rights, drawing the ire of the Harper government and now attracting criticism from Air Canada.

One Tory MP characterizes the Liberal foreign affairs critic as an "international doormat" while a senior Air Canada official suggests it would be wiser for Mr. Rae to speak up for Canadian workers rather than campaigning for votes in the Middle East.

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All of this was provoked by a toughly-worded travel blog - posted by Mr. Rae Monday - in which he accuses the Conservative government of eating itself whole on the issue of competition in the airline industry and playing favourites with Air Canada.

"It is surely an ironic twist that the old Reform Party and Stephen Harper have become advocates of closed skies and pure and simple protectionism," Mr. Rae wrote. He is on a personal trip through the region and decided to travel to the UAE to meet with government officials and assess the situation for himself.

"Canadian public policy on Air Canada and open skies needs to be clarified. Recent comments by John Baird ('tens of thousands of jobs are at stake') would seem to mean that Air Canada is now being treated as a company to be defended at all costs," Mr. Rae writes, referring to the Government House Leader's defence last month of the government's decision to deny extra landing slots to two state-backed UAE airlines. "Yet other aspects of policy - for example, continuing high charges and fees at Pearson Airport in particular - seem to indicate that competitiveness is not taken entirely seriously by the Harper government."

Mr. Rae's comments did not sit well with Air Canada's chief operating officer Duncan Dee, who was angry after reading the opposition MP's blog.

"I would caution the government from taking advice from a party that oversaw about a dozen Canadian airline bankruptcies during its tenure in office from 1993 to 2006," Mr. Dee told The Globe. "Rather than campaigning for votes in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, Mr. Rae should be speaking up for the hundreds of thousands of Canadians whose livelihoods depend directly or indirectly on a strong and vibrant Air Canada and Canadian airline industry."

The dispute began dramatically last October when Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Chief of Defence Staff Walt Natynczyk were prohibited from landing at Camp Mirage, a secret airbase used by the Canadian Forces as a logistics hub for its activities in Afghanistan. The two were returning from a Thanksgiving visit to troops in Kandahar.

The airbase is no longer available to the Canadian military, which had been using it for free for a decade and relocating to other bases is costing the government millions of dollars. In addition, the UAE imposed required expensive visas requirements for Canadians to travel into the country.

"The effective closure of the base at Camp Mirage ... reflected the UAE's frustration and anger at being stiff-armed by the Harper government," Mr. Rae writes.

The Liberal MP believes the Tory decision was not a "wise one" as it leaves the perception that UAE officials were linking a commercial dispute to fighting "violent extremism." But he suggests that all is not lost and that it's not too late to repair the relationship.

"The UAE is an important hub and a potentially larger economic partner for Canada," Mr. Rae writes. "Whatever additional landing rights might be negotiated could be phased in over time, and should continue to be watched closely for any potential impact."

Mr. Rae's travels are being watched closely - and with a critical eye - by the Harper government.

"Canadians expect that when Canadian MPs travel abroad they represent Canada and Canadian interests," Dimitri Soudas, the Prime Minister's spokesman, told The Globe on Sunday. "It would be extremely regrettable if Canadian interests were undermined in any way."

However, Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro, the parliamentary secretary to the Heritage Minister, is much stronger in his assessment of Mr. Rae's travels, reflecting some of the anger in the Tory caucus over this issue.

"If Bob Rae wants to play the part of international door mat rather than take a principled stance in support of Canadian workers and industry he is once again demonstrating the kind of skills we saw first hand during his bleak term as the premier of Ontario," the Peterborough MP told The Globe.

"Canada has been a friend and ally of the UAE and deserves to be treated with respect. ... as the ninth largest economy in the world we have a lot to offer to the UAE, the world's 35th largest economy. Allowing them to dictate the terms of trade unilaterally, however, isn't the kind of trade relationship we need."

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