Air Canada has gone right to the Prime Minister’s office to find a senior executive to lead the airline’s government relations strategy.
Derek Vanstone is currently Harper’s deputy chief of staff and was previously chief of staff to Finance Minister Jim Flaherty from 2007 to 2010.
He will become the airline’s vice-president, corporate strategy, industry and government affairs, beginning Sept.10.
Given the role he plays in government, his appointment had to be first cleared by Mary Dawson, the federal commissioner overseeing conflicts of interest and ethics.
“I am pleased to announce Derek’s appointment to this key corporate strategy, industry and government affairs role,” said Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu said in a statement.
“His solid experience and track record in the private sector and at the highest levels of government will further strengthen the management team’s ability to execute our corporate priorities.”
Vanstone previously practised law in Toronto with the firm Gowling Lafleur Henderson.
He will take on part of the role currently held by Duncan Dee, who is leaving the airline at the end of September.
Dee, who also previously worked on Parliament Hill, is also chief operating officer. The airline says an announcement on a successor to that job will come at a later date.
CAW president Ken Lewenza called the appointment “suspicious,” arguing Vanstone would have played a key role in the back-to-work legislation brought in Air Canada disputes in the past year.
“This is a significant conflict of interest,” Lewenza said, adding the federal government has taken away collective bargaining rights from organized labour.
The airline has been struggling to turn a profit, and it has been hit with labour unrest in the past year, marked by a strike, an illegal wildcat strike by machinists and baggage handlers as well as a sickout by pilots.
Ottawa has intervened in several disputes, blocking strikes and ordering arbitrators to settle contracts.
Air Canada is also looking to the federal government for some relief on back payments to its pension plans that are due to begin again in 2014.
“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure if the closest guy to the Prime Minister’s ear is now working for the employer that requesting federal regulatory changes, and that it’s likely that they have their foot in the door,” Lewenza said.
Air Canada spokeswoman Isabelle Arthur said Vanstone had no involvement in Bill C-33, which blocked a lockout of pilots and a strike by machinists and baggage handlers, or any other legislation affecting Air Canada.
Labour Minister Lisa Raitt also blocked a strike by flight attendants last fall, and threatened to bring in back-to-work legislation after customer service agents went on strike last summer.
“We are well aware of the provisions of the Federal Accountability Act,” said Arthur in an email.
“Derek’s mandate is much broader than government relations activity. In addition to an active role in helping shape the airline’s corporate strategy and direction, Derek will lead a team responsible for industry affairs, and government relations at the provincial, municipal and community relations.”
She added the airline understands Vanstone faces certain restrictions with respect to lobbying, after leaving government, and “Derek will be fully compliant with these restrictions.”
Paul Strachan, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, said he first met Vanstone in 2009, when he was Flaherty’s aide, during talks to reach a pension funding agreement between unions and the airline.
“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Strachan said of the hiring. “It’s been evident to us for some time that Air Canada and the Harper government coordinate closely.”
The pilots are waiting for a decision, expected this month, by an arbitrator, appointed by Raitt, to settle their outstanding contract dispute.