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Air Canada pilots launch Charter challenge against back-to-work legislation

Air Canada pilots are silhouetted as they arrive at Toronto's Pearson airport, March 18, 2012.


Air Canada pilots have launched a constitutional challenge in Ontario court against federal back-to-work legislation passed last week that prevents a strike or lockout at the country's largest carrier.

The union representing pilots said Tuesday that the law forces them to fly and accept a contract imposed by arbitration which contravenes the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The pilots say the Protecting Air Service Act prohibits pilots from exercising their right to strike and contravenes three sections of the Charter.

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"The Harper government's bill clearly violates their rights and should be struck down by the courts," stated Air Canada Pilots Association (ACPA) president Capt. Paul Strachan.

In an application before the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, the pilots also argue that forcing them to fly conflicts with their legal obligations under the Canadian Aviation Regulations. Those regulations prohibit pilots from flying if they have any reason to believe they are unfit to properly perform their duties.

Several Air Canada flights were cancelled last weekend when pilots called in sick after they determined through self-assessments that they were unfit to fly.

Capt. Strachan insisted in an interview that the union didn't orchestrate pilots to call in sick. Air Canada has asked the Canada Industrial Labour Relations Board to declare the actions an illegal strike.

The airline declined to comment on the legal challenge by pilots.

The federal agency will assess the airline's complaint after receiving written submissions due by next week.

"The members of ACPA have been under a significant amount of stress as a result of the unwillingness of Air Canada to negotiate a fair collective agreement, combined with the Minister of Labour's and Parliament's removal of their only means of engaging in meaningful collective bargaining," said the court filing.

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The union says pilots have a "moral, legal and ethical responsibility" to assess their own fitness for duty.

The filing by Jean-Marc Belanger, chairman of ACPA's Master Executive Council, says the legislation tries to override that responsibility and compel pilots to fly by threatening them with fines of up to $1,000 if they don't report for duty. Union officials can be fined up to $50,000 per day.

"This is not only a legal issue, but also a public safety issue that should concern all passengers," Capt. Strachan said.

"We are confident that the rights afforded to all Canadians under the Charter will be upheld and the court will restore fundamental justice."

The pilots say the legislation's requirement for binding, final-offer arbitration also contravenes the Charter and is designed to favour the airline's position.

The Air Canada Pilots Association is the largest professional pilot group in Canada, representing the pilots who operate Air Canada's mainline fleet.

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