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Citing economic impact, Lisa Raitt orders Air Canada back to work

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt speaks to reporters in the foyer of the House of Commons on March 12, 2012.

CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt will introduce back-to-work legislation to block a work stoppage at Air Canada.

Flights would have been grounded after the airline said it would lock out its pilots on the same day its workers were also set to strike, stranding families en route to holidays during the busy travel period of March break.

Responding to questions on why the government doesn't outright declare Air Canada an essential service, Ms. Raitt said Monday the company's present market share has created a unique situation.

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"In the future ... maybe they don't have that kind of market share," Ms. Raitt told reporters on Parliament Hill. "Maybe there is a WestJet or Porter, but right now that is the scenario we're dealing with."

The back-to-work bill comes on the heels of another pre-emptive manoeuvre by the Conservatives, who last week sought to deter a strike or lockout by referring the dispute to the Canada Industrial Relations Board. The board will hold hearings to determine if Air Canada's work stoppage will affect the health and safety of Canadians; that blocked 8,600 ground crew from going on strike Monday as planned, as well as thwarted management's notice to lock out 3,000 pilots on the same day.

NDP labour critic Yvon Godin said the legislation takes away the union's fundamental right to strike.

"They have the right to negotiate a collective agreement, have the right to go on strike as the company has to go on a lock out," Mr. Godin said. "And for the government to get involved the way that they're doing, they're sending a strong message to the business [that]you don't have to come negotiate, just come and see us [and]we'll be there for you."

Ottawa, however, has justified its interventions in the airline's labour talks by saying any stoppage would have dire effects on a fragile Canadian economy.

"You cannot have this impact on the economy and you can't strand millions of Canadians without any means of getting back to their homes," Ms. Raitt said.

"I feel much more strongly introducing this action and having the Canadian public feel certain and know what's going on, rather than take the position of the Opposition and just let matters happen as they may and wish for good luck," she said during Question Period.

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Employees want to win back pay and concessions they gave up to help Air Canada restructure under bankruptcy protection.

Ms. Raitt anticipated it could take two days for the bill to make its way through in the House of Commons, but wouldn't get in to the specifics until the bill is tabled later Monday afternoon.

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