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Airport screening officers go casual to call out ‘disrespect’ from Ottawa

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Airport security screeners are going public with what they deem substandard pay and “disrespect” from the federal agency that oversees their work.

The screeners are wearingstreet clothes at 42 airports as part of a new “Casual Monday action” to draw attention to concerns over wages and working conditions amid negotiations around a new collective agreement, the United Steelworkers union said.

Ottawa has been scrambling to respond to scenes of endless lines, flight delays and daily turmoil at airports — particularly Toronto’s Pearson airport — caused by understaffed security and customs choke points and airlines.

Despite hiring more than 900 screening officers since April, the federal government has failed to mandate sufficient funding for employee wages and conditions, said union representative David Lipton.

“Quite frankly, they’re overworked and underpaid. And there’s been a tremendous amount of attrition in the last several months, because we’ve had senior employees that are leaving to take jobs that pay more,” Lipton said in a phone interview.

The Ottawa airport has about 210 screeners on hand when there should be 350, he said. Wages typically run between $21.77 an hour and $23.33 an hour, plus a monthly bonus of $367 — a maximum of about $4,100 every four weeks — he said.

“They’re working long periods of time without breaks, in some cases working forced overtime as well,” Lipton claimed, calling the situation “untenable.”

He said some screeners in Ottawa opt to join the Parliamentary Protective Service, where they make roughly $4 more per hour and generally face a less stressful work environment. The service oversees security within the capital’s parliamentary precinct.

“CATSA is responsible for managing its relationship with its workplace,” transport minister spokeswoman Laurel Lennox said in an email, noting the agency has nearly met its summer hiring target of about 1,000 screeners.

“Our expectation is ensuring that everybody who works for CATSA has a safe and respectful workplace as the sector continues is recovery.”

The union’s pressure tactic will not disrupt service in any way, union national director Marty Warren said in a release. Bargaining began in January, ahead of the collective agreement’s expiration in March.

Security screening officers are employed by one of three companies subcontracted by the federal Crown corporation Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA).

The agency launched a program incentivizing employees not to take vacation or sick days, offering them a further $200-a-week bonus if they achieve perfect attendance.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach has criticized the bonus. “Seriously, in the midst of a pandemic, this minister is incentivizing workers who come to work sick. If he wants to get travellers moving again he needs to scrap this program immediately and start paying workers fairly,” he said during question period in the House of Commons on Monday.

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra noted the hundreds of fresh hires in security screening and customs. “We have adjusted many of our measures in collaboration with airports and airlines to ease airport delays. And we’re working with workers … who have been working very hard over the last weeks,” he replied.

Neil Parry, CATSA’s vice-president of service delivery, said last week the incentive was put in place because “there can be significant instances of absenteeism where people don’t show up for their shift.”

Not all of the new hires are ready to work yet, with training taking at least one month to complete. And security clearance levels for international flights are tougher to obtain, which means processing times for flights to the U.S. and overseas may not improve as quickly as those for domestic trips.

Canada’s four largest airports (Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal) have been bracing for a 50 per cent rise in passenger numbers ahead of peak travel season.

As of June 1, those hubs were processing an average of 56,000 inbound passengers from abroad each day — more than half of them at Pearson, where scenes of traveller frustration have played out all spring. The figure will hit 80,000 within weeks, according to the Canadian Airports Council.

In May some 490,810 passengers — about half of all inbound travellers from abroad — were held up after arriving on international flights at Pearson airport, facing delays as they sat on the tarmac or underwent staggered off-loading to ease pressure on overflowing customs areas, according to figures provided by the Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

Earlier this month, Ottawa suspended randomized COVID-19 testing of vaccinated passengers through at least June 30, following industry demands to process international travellers more quickly.

Transport Canada has also created an “outbound screening committee” made up of government agencies and industry stakeholders to address bottlenecks at security checkpoints.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 20, 2022.

Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press

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COVID-19

Court martial planned for soldier who criticized vaccine mandate, led march to Ottawa

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By Lee Berthiaume in Ottawa

The Canadian soldier who recently led a protest march to Ottawa is now facing a court martial for having spoken out against the federal government’s COVID-19 vaccine requirements while wearing his uniform.

Warrant Officer James Topp was recently notified that he will be allowed to have his case heard in a military court instead of by his chain of command, according to the army reservist’s civilian lawyer.

Phillip Millar says the decision represents a second about-face after the military initially offered his client a court martial when he was charged in February, only to rescind the offer and send his case to Topp’s unit commanders.

“It’s hard to know what they’re doing, because I don’t think they really know what they’re doing,” said Millar. “But now they’re saying it’s a court martial.”

The decision raises the stakes for Topp, according to military law experts, as courts martial are allowed to impose heavier sentences against Armed Forces members than if they are tried by their chain of command in what is known as a summary trial.

Yet it also means he will be allowed to have legal representation at trial, which wouldn’t have necessarily been the case if he was tried by his commanding officer, while his trial will receive much more public attention.

“The stakes are obviously going to be increased in a public-relations context,” said retired lieutenant-colonel Rory Fowler, who is now a lawyer specializing in military law in Kingston, Ont.

The Department of National Defence did not respond to questions about whether Topp’s case was changed from a court martial to summary trial and back again.

Topp was charged in February with two counts of conduct to the prejudice of good order and discipline after the army reservist appeared in uniform in two online videos criticizing vaccine requirements for military personnel and other federal employees.

Canadian Armed Forces members are severely restricted in the comments they can make while in uniform, particularly when it comes to criticizing government policies, in large part to protect the military from any perception of politicization.

Topp, who is now in the process of being released from the military, later led a months-long march from Vancouver that ended in Ottawa last week and was supported by many of the same organizers as this year’s “Freedom Convoy.”

He has since become a symbol of sorts for Canadians opposed to vaccines, vaccine mandates and perceived government overreach. Some Conservative MPs have also hitched their wagon to him, including leadership candidate Pierre Poilievre.

While Millar questioned the military’s back and forth with his client, and said he planned to question the way Topp’s charges were handled, he nonetheless welcomed the latest decision to allow a court martial.

That is because Topp will now be allowed to have a lawyer present during his trial, where Millar said he plans to call expert witnesses to question the need and efficacy of the military’s vaccine requirement.

The requirement imposed by chief of the defence staff Gen. Wayne Eyre late last year remains in place even though a similar mandate for most other federal public servants has now been suspended.

“It opens the door for us to call witnesses about the decision to charge him,” Millar said. “It opens the door for us to call experts on whether or not there was any science behind the mandate.”

While the shift from a summary trial back to a court martial means Topp will be afforded an independent trial with legal representation, Fowler said it also means the army reservist faces potentially stiffer penalties if convicted.

Under a summary trial, commanding officers are largely restricted to handing down reprimands and fines. If he is found guilty by court martial, however, Topp faces the threat of dismissal from the military with disgrace and up to two years in prison.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau said while there may be a number of reasons why the military opted to change the case from a summary trial back to a court martial, he believed the latter was the appropriate venue for hearing Topp’s case.

“It provides for a trial in an open court with all Charter legal guarantees,” Drapeau said in an email. “It also provides for the provision of free legal support to the member.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

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COVID-19

Tamara Lich breached conditions by appearing with fellow convoy leader: Crown

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By Erika Ibrahim in Ottawa

The Crown is seeking to revoke bail for Tamara Lich, a leader of the “Freedom Convoy,” after she appeared alongside a fellow organizer in an alleged breach of her conditions.

Lich was charged in February with mischief, obstructing police, counselling others to commit mischief and intimidation for her role in the massive protest against COVID-19 restrictions that gridlocked downtown Ottawa for more than three weeks.

She was released the next month with a long list of conditions, including an order not to communicate with key convoy organizers except through counsel or in the presence of counsel. She was also banned from using all social media.

Crown prosecutor Moiz Karimjee told an Ottawa court on Tuesday that Lich breached one of her conditions by being seen with fellow protest leader Tom Marazzo at a recent gala, where she accepted an award for organizing the protest.

He argued that she should be detained.

Lich’s lawyer, Lawrence Greenspon, said he will contest the revocation of Lich’s bail and seek her release with conditions.

Ottawa police Det. Chris Benson, who is the lead on Lich’s case, told the court he reviewed video of Lich and Marazzo appearing together at the awards gala.

Greenspon asked Benson if he knew of any other evidence that Lich and Marazzo communicated before or after the brief interaction in the video, which took place in “less than three seconds.”

He asked the detective if he was aware that some lawyers from the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms were present, some of whom are acting as her lawyers in civil matters.

Benson said he believed a photograph showing Lich, Marazzo and others posing together at the award ceremony shows that she breached her conditions due to her physical closeness to him.

Lich monitored the hearing remotely from an Ontario detention centre, watching on video conference and listening in from a cellphone, her blond hair in a high bun.

Both Marazzo and Lich were key spokespeople of the winter convoy protest. Marazzo is also a leader of a group called Veterans 4 Freedom, which staged several rallies in Ottawa over the Canada Day weekend.

Police sought a Canada-wide arrest warrant for Lich for the alleged breach of her bail conditions and she was arrested last week in Medicine Hat, Alta., where she lives.

Benson said he oversaw Lich’s transport from Alberta to Ottawa after she was arrested.

Lich’s surety, whose identity is protected by a court-ordered publication ban, said they became aware of the photo of Lich and Marazzo a few days after the event, and immediately contacted Lich about it out of concern that a possible violation of bail conditions took place.

The surety explained that Lich assured them that legal counsel was present at the gala.

Greenspon pointed out the evidence brought against Lich to argue she broke the bail condition consists of a very brief congratulatory interaction between her and Marazzo, adding lawyers approved the photo and were just off-camera.

He argued Benson didn’t provide any evidence that contradicted the terms of the bail conditions.

“These actions were so minimal as to amount to not being prosecuted, let alone convicted,” he said.

The purpose of the bail condition was not to preclude the brief interaction and photo that took place, Greenspon said — rather, it was to prevent a similar event to the one that took place in Ottawa earlier this year. He argued the interactions in question do not risk reoffence.

The matter should have been brought to a judicial referral hearing or some other recourse rather than the Canada-wide warrant that has led to Lich being detained for nine days, he said, noting an email showing the Crown sought the expansion from an initial Ontario-wide warrant.

Justice of the Peace Paul Harris reserved his decision until the next court appearance on Friday.

Lich is charged for her role in the “Freedom Convoy” along with a co-accused, Chris Barber, who remains out on bail.

On Tuesday morning, Barber’s lawyer was granted a publication ban on court documents showing Barber’s cellphone communications, except for those with Lich.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 5, 2022.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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