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Prime Minister Stephen Harper pauses while answering questions from the media after announcing the construction of a pedestrian tunnel to Billy Bishop Airport in Toronto on March 9, 2012.

Pawel Dwulit/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Federal Labour Minister Lisa Raitt is preparing back-to-work legislation as a precautionary measure to ensure Air Canada's flight schedule is protected from disruptions by the airline's employees.

Her move Friday comes a day after she referred two Air Canada labour disputes to the Canada Industrial Relations Board, a manoeuvre that blocked ground crew from going on strike and thwarted management's notice to lock out pilots.

"The Minister has placed a bill on the order paper," Ashley Kelahear, a spokeswoman for Ms. Raitt, confirmed on Friday.

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While it's unclear when the bill might be tabled in the House of Commons, industry observers say Ottawa's intent is to guard against any developments that might allow Air Canada employees to walk off their jobs.

Members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers had planned to begin their strike at 12:01 a.m. ET on Monday, while the pilots' union faced being frozen out the same day.

Ms. Raitt asked the labour board on Thursday to determine what level of operations Air Canada must maintain to avoid posing a danger to the health and safety of Canadians. She cited a section of the Canada Labour Code for her referral, which effectively halted the threatened work stoppage at Air Canada during the busy March break travel period.

"While we're not aware of the specifics of the legislation, our priority is to bring closure to the ongoing climate of labour uncertainty which is affecting customers and destabilizing the company. In the meantime, lines of communication remain open with both unions," Air Canada said in a statement Friday night.

The IAMAW represents 8,600 mechanics, baggage handlers, cargo agents, aircraft cleaners and electricians, while the Air Canada Pilots Association represents 3,000 employees.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, during a swing through Toronto on Friday, said he believes Canadians expect the federal government to act in the public interest, not side with management or labour.

"Air Canada came to us during the economic crisis, during the global crisis and asked specifically for government assistance in a number of areas because of the dangers shutting down the airline would represent to the Canadian economy. I'll be darned if we will now sit by and let the airline shut itself down," said Mr. Harper, who appeared at Billy Bishop Toronto City Centre Airport to mark the start of the construction of a pedestrian tunnel to the island air terminal.

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A work stoppage would have created chaos for travellers booked on Air Canada, which expects to carry more than 100,000 passengers a day over the next two weeks.

"This is not what the economy needs and it is certainly not what the travelling public needs at this time of year. So 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," Mr. Harper said, adding that he hopes "the two parties find some way through mediation, arbitration of resolving these disputes without having impacts on the Canadian public."

IAMAW members demonstrated in a noisy show of strength at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Friday afternoon. With flags, cowbells and chants targeting Ms. Raitt and Air Canada chief executive officer Calin Rovinescu, the workers paraded through Terminal 1, past crowds of travellers gathered to start their March break vacations.

Dave Ritchie, the IAMAW's Canadian general vice-president, warned that the actions of the government should be raising alarms beyond this particular dispute. "The things my father fought for have gone down the tubes," he said. "This is not a fight for Air Canada, this is a fight for labour rights across the country."

With a file from Oliver Moore

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