July 22, 2018

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Union warns of layoffs in air service

But Tory government says privatization of air ambulances, water bombers isn't a done deal

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Water bombers work on the fire on the East side of Caddy Lake in 2016.</p>

JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Water bombers work on the fire on the East side of Caddy Lake in 2016.

Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronski sees no coincidence Premier Brian Pallister’s cabinet will decide on privatizing water bombers and air ambulances next year — just as its no-layoff collective agreement expires.

“Our members are very, very concerned — do they have a job or not?” Gawronski said in an interview. “They’re an essential service — they shouldn’t be auctioned off for a profit.”

However, the provincial government insists privatization isn’t a done deal; it is just testing the market to see if Manitobans can get better value for money.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said Manitobans want him to be the smartest shopper possible. Schuler’s timeline for putting a recommendation before cabinet could take him into early 2019, but he emphasized privatization is still up in the air.

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Manitoba Government and General Employees’ Union president Michelle Gawronski sees no coincidence Premier Brian Pallister’s cabinet will decide on privatizing water bombers and air ambulances next year — just as its no-layoff collective agreement expires.

"Our members are very, very concerned — do they have a job or not?" Gawronski said in an interview. "They’re an essential service — they shouldn’t be auctioned off for a profit."

However, the provincial government insists privatization isn’t a done deal; it is just testing the market to see if Manitobans can get better value for money.

Infrastructure Minister Ron Schuler said Manitobans want him to be the smartest shopper possible. Schuler’s timeline for putting a recommendation before cabinet could take him into early 2019, but he emphasized privatization is still up in the air.

While Schuler has thus far refused in question period to tell the Opposition NDP whom he’s hired, he said WSP Global Inc. consulting firm is handling the development of a request for proposals, which will go out by the end of August.

WSP Global would study any proposals submitted, then it would go to cabinet — maybe to privatize, maybe to forget the whole idea, he said.

He won’t prejudge what the consulting firm will learn or recommend, should anyone make a proposal, Schuler said. "It’s not for us to decide if this is money-saving. We said: would anyone even be interested in bidding on this?"

When Manitoba first hinted at privatizing the air services, the province received six expressions of interest from companies Schuler refused to name.

Some were interested in acquiring the entire service, some just taking over government flights, some running the air ambulance, some the water bombers, he said. "Some companies would key into certain parts of what we provide."

"The RFP would be very clear that they have to provide us with our service as it currently exists," Schuler said. He added that it’s WSP Global’s job to figure out how the quality of service can be maintained at a lower cost while the provider turns a profit.

"I would be under the assumption they would buy our aircraft," Schuler said. However, "We wouldn’t view this as a money generator."

As for the public employees, there are no guarantees they’d be retained, Schuler said. "We are putting very few conditions in."

One widely-voiced concern is a private operator of water bombers could contract them out in winter months to fire-prone parts of the United States, and it might be more profitable to leave them in California should forest fire seasons overlap.

Schuler won’t speculate what private operators might charge the province, but said any contract would ensure Manitoba’s needs always came first.

"The expectation is, at the minimum, we have the services we have now," Schuler said. "We would want to have a contract that’s pretty tight."

If a private operator sent water bombers elsewhere, "Will they come back to Manitoba when we need them?" asked University of Manitoba business Prof. Barry Prentice, a leading researcher in transportation issues.

Operating as a public service, "Obviously, it’s always there when we want it... I don’t see where the savings are," Prentice said.

Exchange Income Corp. said it’s interested in the air ambulance service. Among many companies, it owns Perimeter Aviation LP, Calm Air International LP, Bearskin Airlines and Keewatin Air LP.

"We look forward to the (request for proposals). We provide medevac services in Manitoba and other jurisdictions in Canada. In particular, we look forward to examining the segment of medevac services that is not already handled by private companies in Manitoba should such an RFP be issued," said Michael Pyle, chief executive of Exchange Income Corp.

Sources suggested B.C.-based Conair Group Inc. would bid on taking over the water bombers.

"We are aware the government of Manitoba is considering the privatization of their government air services. We are not prepared to comment publicly about this, or any other pending business opportunities currently under consideration," said Jeff Berry, Conair director of business development.

When at full complement, the government air services have 91 staff, including pilots, nurses and mechanics.

Liberal MLA Judy Klassen (Kewatinook) said northerners, such as her home community of St. Theresa Point First Nation, are wary of what could happen if essential services are run on a profit.

"They’re not part of the system that does it as social justice. That’s too much of a risk — that’s people’s lives," Klassen said. "Private enterprise will always seek a profit. How can it be cheaper?

"We need Pallister to realize that it’s better to be a public good."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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