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Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu urged Montreal business leaders 'to take action' to keep the International Civil Aviation Organization's headquarters in the city.

DARRYL DYCK/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Air Canada and WestJet are joining the Canadian government in opposing overtures from Qatar to move the world headquarters of the International Civil Aviation Organization from Montreal.

With about 534 staff members working for the United Nations agency in Montreal, the organization has been a fixture of the downtown since the ICAO was created in 1944 and came into operation three years later to help oversee rules and practices for international aviation.

Qatar wants to build a new headquarters for the organization in Doha and has voiced criticism that the ICAO's current main offices are too far from Asia and Europe.

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Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird has reportedly spoken to Qatar's Prime Minister, Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, about Canada's desire to keep the ICAO in Montreal, which has long been one of the world's major centres for the aerospace industry. The ICAO was also originally headquartered in Montreal because of its proximity to the UN in New York.

On Monday, Air Canada joined the debate, asking other companies in Montreal to speak up, too.

"As president of Air Canada, a company that is proud to have its headquarters in Montreal, where we have more than 5,000 employees, I invite all business leaders in Montreal to take action to ensure that ICAO's headquarters remain in this city," said the airline's president and chief executive officer, Calin Rovinescu.

"Our aim is to demonstrate our support along with the entire Montreal community, and indeed all Canada, for keeping ICAO's headquarters in Montreal. This is a matter that will be decided by the UN, but we feel it is important to publicly state our position," an Air Canada spokesman added.

WestJet Airlines Ltd. also voiced support for keeping the ICAO in Montreal on Monday.

"WestJet is very much in favour of keeping the International Civil Aviation Organization in its permanent seat of Montreal, where it has a long history alongside other respected aviation industry leaders such as Bombardier [and] Pratt & Whitney Canada," said WestJet spokeswoman Brie Thorsteinson Ogle.

The ICAO is currently negotiating to have its lease renewed for its building on University Street in Montreal, which is owned by the federal government. That headquarters agreement, which is being renewed for 2016 to 2036, also establishes the diplomatic privileges and immunities of state representatives working at the ICAO.

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But the issue of the permanent seat of the organization being in Montreal is a different matter, explained ICAO spokesman Anthony Philbin. The ICAO is bound by its rules to accept any proposals to move the permanent seat elsewhere.

Qatar has submitted its offer and now has to prepare a formal working paper in May. The assembly of all 191 member countries, taking place every three years, will be held in September. To be approved, the move needs the support of 60 per cent of members.

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