Manitoba chiefs boycotting Air Canada

Manitoba's First Nation leaders are calling for a six-month boycott of Air Canada for pulling its flight crews out of downtown Winnipeg hotels amid safety concerns.

Airline memo 'incited hatred' against aboriginals, says chief

Air Canada's decision to move its crews out of downtown Winnipeg during layovers has prompted Manitoba's native leaders to call for a six-month boycott of the airline. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Manitoba's First Nation leaders are calling for a six-month boycott of Air Canada over the airline's controversial decision to pull its flight crews out of downtown Winnipeg hotels amid safety concerns.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said Monday that Air Canada has not apologized for an internal bulletin it sent late last month, informing pilots and flight crew personnel they would no longer be staying at the Radisson Hotel on Portage Avenue because of "questionable safety in the area."

Air Canada pilots and flight staff are no longer staying at the Radisson Hotel on Portage Avenue in downtown Winnipeg. They are instead being lodged at a hotel close to the airport. ((CBC))

The airline's bulletin, which was dated Sept. 23 but leaked this month, notes 1,000 "displaced" people from rural Manitoba are staying in downtown Winnipeg due to "recent environmental issues," but it was not made clear if the note was referring to residents of rural areas that were affected by flooding in the province this past spring.

The Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs said the reference to displaced people is racist because a number of those who were relocated to downtown Winnipeg come from a northern First Nation that was affected by flooding.

"Are we going to support a company that makes racist remarks against my family members, against my friends that are unwarranted, or will I fly with another carrier that's a little more socially responsible than that?" Grand Chief Derek Nepinak told CBC News.

Chiefs requested apology

Nepinak said his organization had written to Air Canada president Calin Rovinescu last week to request an apology.

"Not only did we not get an apology, we did not get a response from the person to whom the letter was addressed," Nepinak stated in a release.

"That is completely unacceptable, particularly in light of the fact that Air Canada's careless remarks have incited hatred in the popular media against our people," he added.

The airline's memo said local police have observed "instances of public intoxication, resulting in several downtown locations being susceptible to crimes of violence and opportunity."

"When you take a population of people who are displaced due to flooding and [you're] attaching descriptors such as 'public intoxicant' or 'higher incidence of crime' or 'exposure to crime,' that's not acceptable," Nepinak said.

Did not mean to offend: airline

Air Canada did apologize earlier this month for "inadvertently" offending anyone with its bulletin, but the airline stands by its safety concerns.

Air Canada declined to comment to CBC News about the chiefs' boycott, but in a letter to Nepinak and other chiefs, the airline said it "had no intent to, and was not aware that it would, offend First Nations citizens of Manitoba or any other group."

"I would like to reiterate our apology for the unfortunate controversy that has resulted from our memo to pilots on Winnipeg accommodation," stated the letter by David Legge, Air Canada's senior vice-president of operations, dated Oct. 6.

Legge said in the last year, flight staff had expressed safety concerns and reported "incidents of theft of personal effects while on layover in downtown Winnipeg."

The airline consulted with Winnipeg police and "determined that a prudent course of action for the time being would be to relocate layover crews away from the downtown area," Legge said in his letter.

Flight attendants rally over right to strike

Meanwhile, some of Air Canada's flight attendants rallied outside the airline's downtown Winnipeg offices on Monday, days after the federal government blocked a potential strike.

Flight attendant Jennifer Biebrich-Adamson, one of about 100 to rally in the Air Canada Plaza off Portage Avenue, said the federal government has gone too far.

About 100 Air Canada flight attendants rally outside the airline's Winnipeg offices on Monday. (Megan Benedictson/CBC)

"The collective bargaining process has been jeopardized throughout the whole process by the federal government," she said.

"I think that they have a blatant disrespect for the labour code, and every Canadian worker is at risk right now."

The union representing 6,800 Air Canada flight attendants cancelled its planned strike last Thursday after the Canada Industrial Relations Board said employees must remain on the job while their contract dispute is being reviewed.

The Canadian Union of Public Employees, which represents the flight attendants, received formal notice Wednesday that Labour Minister Lisa Raitt had referred the contract dispute to the CIRB.

Raitt's referral effectively blocked the strike. She said it needs to be determined whether a work stoppage would impact the public's health and safety.

But Biebrich-Adamson said talk of back-to-work legislation from the get-go has taken away the union's power to negotiate.

She added that flight attendants have shouldered too many cuts in the past decade, and it's time to get back what they are owed.