Lifeflight staff laid off as province continues privatization of Manitoba air ambulance service

The provincial government has laid off nine pilots and maintenance crew from its Lifeflight air ambulance program. The Progressive Conservative government has issued a request for proposals for a private carrier to run the service.

Pilots and maintenance staff let go after province moves to private carrier

The province said earlier this month it would begin using private carriers to replace its two Citation jets operating the Lifeflight service. (CBC)

Nine pilots and maintenance staff received layoff notices Wednesday as part of the Progressive Conservative government's plan to privatize Manitoba's air ambulance program.

The province signalled earlier this month it would begin using private carriers to replace its two Citation jets operating the Lifeflight service.

A request for proposals for a private company to replace the current government-run program has been issued, but its details have not been released.

A spokesperson for Manitoba Infrastructure says over half of patient transfers were done last year by private carriers and beginning June 28, a company will take over remaining Lifeflight operations on an interim basis. 

The province said Wednesday afternoon the service will be provided on an interim basis by Babcock Canada, in partnership with Vanguard Air Care, which is a Division of Fast Air.

Babcock previously won a contract to take over the province's wildfire-fighting initiatives worth $170 million over 10 years, according to the firm's website. 

We have no idea who will be running this service or how."​​​​​​- MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky

"While some aircraft are changing and employees in Manitoba's air services branch have been impacted by this change, the delivery of patient care and clinical services continues," the spokesperson wrote in an email Wednesday.

News of the layoffs has drawn another round of criticism from the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, which represents the workers.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky told reporters Wednesday the government is gambling with the safety of rural and northern Manitobans.

"In this government's rush to privatize this service, they have failed to put together a contingency plan to ensure that critical air ambulance service is there for Manitobans. We have no idea who will be running this service or how."

Gawronsky accused the government of not being transparent with the 13 remaining Lifeflight staff about when further layoffs will happen.

The nine pilots and maintenance staff let go Wednesday were told as they arrived for work.

MGEU president Michelle Gawronsky says the government is choosing cost savings over safety for staff and patients. (John Einarson/CBC)

The Manitoba Infrastructure spokesperson said "every effort will be made to find other positions within the civil service for employees that are affected by operational changes."

Doctors say they weren't consulted on RFP

Doctors who work on Lifeflight calls have opposed the privatization of the service since the idea was raised by the Progressive Conservative government last year. 

Earlier this month, Theresa Oswald, the CEO of Doctors Manitoba, wrote to Minister of Health Cameron Friesen, expressing concerns that Lifeflight physicians had not been consulted on the request for proposals for a private carrier.

That RFP, Oswald wrote, has not been shared with the medical staff who work on the aircraft.

"It is unclear what requirements, if any, were included to ensure the basic safety of physicians, crew and patients, or when basic carriers would be operational," Oswald wrote on June 7.

Doctors who work on the Lifeflight service have repeatedly raised concerns about safety and threatened to refuse work on private aircraft.

Opposition NDP Leader Wab Kinew said the government is "gutting" air ambulance services across the province as a communications blackout has been imposed because of the upcoming Sept. 10 provincial election.

"They are using the election period for cover. So Manitobans are losing jobs, they are losing health care [and] they are losing air ambulances. Yet the government isn't being open about what is going on here," Kinew said.

The layoffs and privatization of the service have also drawn fire from northern Manitoba First Nations.

Garrison Settee, the grand chief of  Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, called the move "unacceptable" and "unsafe." He worries that after the grounding of the province's two Citation jets, a private service may use planes that won't work in remote airstrips.

"Private jets may be unable to land and safely take off from many of our First Nations — which means our citizens may be unable to access life-saving health services during times of medical distress," Settee said in a statement.

The government spokesperson says the province has not put the two surplus Citation jets up for sale.


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