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This article was published 14/2/2019 (341 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The provincial government has chosen a private company, which has a board chaired by a former Tory premier, to provide some government air services.
The move will save taxpayers $6.5 million over five years, Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said Thursday.
Winnipeg-based aviation company Exchange Income Corp. (EIC) was chosen as the new sole provider of transportation for justice officials and people accused of crimes, flying them to courts in rural Manitoba.
EIC already operates in the north, through Bearskin Lake Air Service, Calm Air, Custom Helicopters, Keewatin Air, and Perimeter Aviation.
Former premier Gary Filmon is chair of the EIC's board of directors, which comprises at least six past PC party donors.
Schuler said there was "no political interference" during the request for proposals (RFP) process, which started in July, 2018.
Deliberations happened at the independent Treasury Board Secretariat, with no elected officials or political staff present, the minister said. The secretariat later provided its recommendation to the provincial cabinet for approval.
"There is no pressure of any kind put on. It is an independent body. The Treasury Board does this very straight up. It goes on Merx (a public tender website). The entire world can bid on it and then they have a process whereby they decide who’s going to get it," Schuler said.
"(The province) would not have known who was in the running. We don’t know who’s applied. We don’t know who’s being interviewed and who’s being negotiated with."
Schuler also said no one from EIC was in talks with the government about possible privatization of air services before the RFP went out.
Still, Manitoba NDP leader Wab Kinew critiqued the optics of the situation.
"There’s a ton of overlap between the PC party of Manitoba and the corporation that just got this contract," Kinew said.
"So everyone else in the public sector right now – teachers, nurses, everyone else in the province – is getting cuts and wage freezes except of course this well-connected corporation who apparently is getting millions of dollars from Pallister."
"From my vantage point, this sort of deal is the reason why people say the system is rigged," he said.
Messages left for Filmon at EIC were not returned before deadline Thursday.
Before choosing EIC as its provider, Schuler said government transport services were provided by a slew of "one-off" flights from private carriers 97 per cent of the time.
He noted the new contract will be more cost-effective, ringing in at $4.2 million over five years. He also touted new safety requirements, which include mandatory daily, weekly and monthly reports from the company.
There will be nine aircraft available, which should help avoid flight delays, the minister said. In the past, justice officials had complained about getting stuck in remote communities "several times," Schuler said, though he couldn’t specify exactly how many such incidents occurred.
"A single court delay in northern Manitoba would be an average cost of $10,000 and extended delays could lead to cases being thrown out of court," he said. "Thus, this is going to be a proactive move on our part because as we all know, justice delayed is justice denied."
The minister said sheriffs previously weren’t allowed to be armed with pepper-spray or firearms while transporting accused criminals either; a rule that will change under the new contract.
The province issued a three-pronged RFP last summer and with Thursday's announcement has struck two of three items off its list.
It has contracted out wildfire suppression services to Babcock Canada in December, but still needs to make a decision on air ambulances, including Lifeflight, which provides support for critically-ill patients in rural and northern communities.
Michelle Gawronsky, president of the Manitoba Government and General Employees' Union, said some Lifeflight staff, who the union represents, found out Thursday morning the RFP decision affecting their jobs may be pushed back until summer, causing them more stress.
"The government ran this service into the ground by not fully staffing it, and by putting it under a cloud of uncertainty with this RFP process," Gawronsky said by email.
"This government’s own mismanagement of air services created the problems that it is now using to justify privatizing the service."
Schuler said the province has hired two new pilots to show its commitment to Lifeflight and will be upgrading one of its aircraft within days.
A spokesperson for Manitoba Health said two more Lifeflight nursing positions were also recently posted. Applications close Feb. 25.
Jessica Botelho-Urbanski covers the Manitoba Legislature for the Winnipeg Free Press.