A tentative deal between Air Canada and its striking workers means the government can now turn its attention to back-to-work legislation to end the lockout at Canada Post.

Labour Minister Lisa Raitt announced the tentative deal shortly after 1 p.m. ET in the House of Commons, about an hour after the government introduced legislation that would force the union back to work.

"We're very, very pleased with how it unfolded and I know that putting the legislation on the order paper and following through in process today was a tool that was needed in order to focus the parties and narrow the issues and get them to where they are," Raitt said, adding she worked with NDP labour critic Yvon Godin to try to convince the two sides to go back to the table.

Air Canada says employees are expected to return to work effective Friday morning.

In a statement, the airline says the parties reached a tentative agreement on all elements of a new contract except for pension arrangements for workers hired after the ratification of the collective agreement. That issue will be referred to binding arbitration.

The deal means the government can instead plan to turn its attention to another back-to-work bill, to end the lockout at Canada Post, on Tuesday.

Raitt will introduce back-to-work legislation for Canada Post in the House on Monday, but it's up to the NDP to set the debate on that day, because it's one of the few days allocated to the Opposition's agenda. 

The NDP is strongly opposed to the bill and has promised to slow debate on it.

The House of Commons is not sitting Friday to accommodate the NDP's convention in Vancouver and adjourned Thursday afternoon. Before adjournment, MPs agreed to move to debating a bill introduced earlier this week to speed up trials with multiple accused.

Earlier Thursday, the government had argued for a time allocation motion that would have expedited passage of the Air Canada back-to-work bill, but opposition MPs would not give unanimous consent to do so.

Bill a 'sucker-punch' to labour: MP

"This has been the single biggest sucker-punch that organized labour has received in years," Liberal labour critic Roger Cuzner said. "This legislation was moved not days or weeks but hours after the deadline passed." 

"We've seen no great delays in air travel in this country. We've seen no public outcry as a result of this," Cuzner added, asking if this was what Canadians should expect from the government going forward.

Air Canada customer service and sales staff walked off the job Tuesday night.

NDP labour critic Yvon Godin said it's "dangerous" for the government to get involved, and claimed that Air Canada and Canada Post actually wanted its employees to strike so the corporations could benefit when the government legislated employees back to work.

"If the government says we're sending a clear message out to Canadians that we have no choice because our mandate is to focus on the economic recovery, well brace yourselves everyone," Godin warned MPs. "The government won't stop with Air Canada and Canada Post. It's simply the start of the way the government will act in the future."

The NDP also asked about the govenment's plans to protect workers' pensions. Pensions were one of the contentious issues in the Air Canada contract talks.

The government wanted to limit debate around the back-to-work legislation, and force a vote as quickly as possible so its majority could prevail.

However, the Opposition New Democrats vow to oppose the swift passage of back-to-work legislation using what procedural tools are at their disposal.  

"I think we're seeing record speed here in the case of the government. And I think it indicates a bias on the side of the employer," Layton argued, in explaining his party's view that negotiations should be given more time to play out before legislation is considered.

After question period, interim Liberal leader Bob Rae admitted it was anything but clear whether back-to-work legislation would go ahead or not, before the House rises for the summer.

"There are a lot of rumours flying around," Rae said. "Certainly the parties are still very actively discussing."  

With the House adjourned on Friday, debate on the the legislation itself won't happen until at least Tuesday and the bill appears unlikely to pass before the middle of next week.

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