With big bonuses, Air Canada gives us all a $10-million slap in the face

Posted on June 4, 2021 in Equality Debates

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TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorials
June 3, 202.   By Star Editorial Boardlly bankrupt.”

That’s how a union representing flight attendants described Air Canada’s decision to pay executive bonuses while lobbying for a federal bailout and laying off tens of thousands of workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As denunciations go, it’s difficult to improve on. Succinct. Scathing. Spot on.

In paying about $10 million in “pandemic mitigation bonuses” and stock awards to executives and managers, Air Canada demonstrated first-class chutzpah.

The airline disclosed this week in its annual proxy circular to shareholders that it gave the bonuses last December to executives and managers “for exceptional performance” over the past year as air travel plunged during the pandemic.

The revelation of the bonuses triggers two thoughts.

First, the oft-repeated notion that “we’re all in this together” during the COVID-19 crisis is one of the larger lies of contemporary times.

Second, it’s not for nothing that pride and greed usually head the list of humanity’s seven deadly sins.

The payouts were made even as Air Canada laid off tens of thousands and successfully lobbied the federal government for a $5.9-billion aid package, while also tapping into the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy program to the tune of about $656 million.

It was only after the government agreed to the aid package that Air Canada offered refunds to passengers whose flights were cancelled at the outset of the pandemic.

In all, Air Canada has provided something close to a master class in either misreading or not caring how such pocket-stuffing would look to average Canadians who have endured a year of death, sickness, job loss and heartache.

What surely leaves Canadians flabbergasted and furious is that this is not one firm making one bad decision.

Air Canada is hardly alone in making sure those already living large were not put unduly out of pocket by the pandemic.

Executives for Canadian Tire, Loblaw and Chartwell – Canada’s largest operator of long-term care and nursing homes – are all among those who pocketed large bonuses on top of salaries that already put them in the one per cent.

For the well-off, especially the super-rich, the pandemic has actually produced a financial windfall even as they were generally most protected from it.

Since March 2020, Canada’s four dozen or so billionaires have seen their combined wealth grow by more than $78 billion, or about 40 per cent.

In the United States, President Joe Biden has said 20 million Americans lost their jobs during the pandemic but about 650 billionaires saw their net worth increase by more than $1trillion.

A report last year by the Swiss bank UBS found that the number of billionaires in the world had risen to almost 2,200 and that their wealth increased by more than 27 per cent at the height of the crisis.

There is a world of problems in that extreme concentration of wealth and the yawning (and growing) disparities upon which the pandemic has shone a spotlight.

When the vast majority of people are struggling, it courts inevitable public anger, and as America knows the chaotic politics of rage can ensue.

Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland was decidedly unhappy with Air Canada and the failure of all businesses reneging on the responsibilities of good corporate citizenship.

With a six-per-cent stake in Air Canada, the government is a key shareholder in the airline.

“That gives us a voice in decisions taken by the company, and we will not shy away from using that voice,” Freeland said.

The more insistent that voice on corporate decency, the better.

For starters, Freeland should heed a Bloc Québécois suggestion that she find a way to withhold public funding for Air Canada until the airline rescinds bonuses that stand as a $10-million insult to the country.

The applause from those travelling economy would be long and loud.


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