Air Canada has apologized for "inadvertently" offending anyone with its decision to move its crews out of a downtown Winnipeg hotel amid safety concerns.
In a bulletin issued late last month, Air Canada informed its pilots and flight crew personnel that they would no longer be staying at the Radisson Hotel on Portage Avenue and Smith Street because of "questionable safety in the area."
The airline's decision has riled various Manitoba leaders, including Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz, who is demanding to know why Air Canada believes the city's downtown is too dangerous for its crews during overnight layovers.
Air Canada's move has also angered the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, which has accused the airline of being racist for negatively characterizing Manitoba flood victims, many of whom are displaced First Nations people.
"It appears that certain inferences are being drawn from the contents of a recent internal bulletin relating to accommodation for flight crews on overnight layover in Winnipeg," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News in an email Monday afternoon.
"Air Canada wishes to state categorically it had no intent to cause offence to any individual or group and apologizes if it inadvertently did so," Fitzpatrick added.
Instead of the Radisson, Air Canada staff are being housed at the Sandman Hotel and Suites, located near the airport on Sargent Avenue. The hotel is a 10-minute drive from downtown, according to its website.
"I'm extremely disappointed. I can assure you that my office will be contacting Air Canada," Katz said earlier on Monday.
"If Air Canada's making that kind of statement I think they should be, you know, upfront and say exactly what it is that they're saying as opposed to letting us all try and read into what it is they are saying," he added.
Katz, who is the owner of the Winnipeg Goldeyes baseball team, said that between May and September he books the Radisson hundreds of times for visiting players and has never received a complaint.
The airline's note refers to "displaced" people from rural Manitoba who were forced to relocate to the downtown core due to "recent environmental issues."
'We can call it racism. It's right in our face now.' —Grand Chief Derek Nepinak
It is unclear whether the bulletin was referring to residents of rural areas affected by flooding in the province earlier this summer.
There are at least 100 First Nations people who have been staying in downtown Winnipeg hotels since their reserves were flooded in the spring.
Grand Chief Derek Nepinak of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Air Canada is being irresponsible, ignorant and unfair in its characterization of flood victims.
"We can call it racism. It's right in our face now," Nepinak told reporters.
However, the note says, officials will "revisit the downtown area once the present situation improves. Authorities anticipate displaced people to be an issue for another 12 months."
Pilots unhappy with move
The pilots union is not happy with the move, either. It says the company is violating the collective agreement, which states flight crews must stay in downtown hotels.
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"We like meeting in downtown Winnipeg. I'm a native Winnipegger, so I think the notion that the entire downtown area is dangerous is quite simply ridiculous," said Capt. Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association.
The collective agreement requires that pilots stay in downtown hotels, wherever they are in the world, so they have access to a decent variety of food and activities in their off-hours, Strachan told CBC News.
At the same time, Strachan said he has heard concerns from flight attendants.
"Some of our crew members had some items stolen while they were outside the hotel waiting for their car to take them to the airport," he said.
The decision by Air Canada is drawing reaction on the campaign trail in advance of Tuesday's provincial election. Both the NDP and Progressive Conservatives have already promised more police officers for Winnipeg.
Air Canada responds
Oct. 1: "The safety and well-being of passengers and crew are always a top priority at Air Canada. In this instance, we are acting out of an abundance of caution after conducting a security assessment with both local law enforcement officials in Winnipeg and our own security people," Air Canada spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick told CBC News.
"As a result, we will be using a different accommodation for crew layovers in Winnipeg on an interim basis. This has no impact on Air Canada service to the community," Fitzpatrick stated in an email.
"Beyond that we have nothing more to offer by way of comment as we normally do not discuss issues of security and safety for reasons I am sure you can appreciate."
Oct. 3: In response to further queries from CBC News, Fitzpatrick said in an email: "Hello, we have no further comment to offer. However, it appears that certain inferences are being drawn from the contents of a recent internal bulletin relating to accommodation for flight crews on overnight layover in Winnipeg.
"Air Canada wishes to state categorically it had no intent to cause offence to any individual or group and apologizes if it inadvertently did so. Thank you."
NDP Leader Greg Selinger thinks Air Canada made the wrong decision.
"We have cadets working the streets and a BIZ patrol and we are going to have community policing. I really think they should rethink their decision," he said.
"There are so many things that are good about downtown Winnipeg. I think head office should rethink it."
PC Leader Hugh McFadyen says the airline's decision is a sign of NDP neglect of crime issues.
"It's regrettable. I wish that wasn't happening. But it is a reflection of things we know are happening in the city in terms of violent crime," he said.
Liberal Leader Jon Gerrard called Air Canada's decision "disappointing."
The man in charge of Winnipeg's Downtown BIZ (business improvement zone) — a business advocacy agency that runs programs targeting cleanliness, safety, transportation and parking — is baffled by the airline's decision.
Rick Joyal said the agency has steadily increased the number of patrols over the years and his patrols aren't seeing the issues with intoxicated people that Air Canada has cited.
He said there are fewer instances of public drunkenness and assaults, and believes downtown's bad reputation is undeserved.
Even some of his own patrol members, when they first arrive for the job, express a concern that never matches up to their experience.
"The stories [people]
hear about our downtown when they get here are horrendous and then when they get here, like the guys that are walking the streets, they say, 'I don't know where they're getting their information from.'"