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Ottawa up in the air on UAE bid for more Canadian flights

An Emirates aircraft lands at Pearson airport in Toronto on June 1, 2009.

NATHAN DENETTE/The Canadian Press

Stephen Harper's government is sending conflicting messages over whether it's prepared to award more lucrative landing rights to airlines from the United Arab Emirates - the very dispute that has prompted the Mideast nation to evict Canada from a local military base.

For days the government has privately said that the only negotiations still being conducted with the UAE concern whether the Arab federation will give it more time to withdraw from Camp Mirage.

But on Thursday, International Trade Minister Peter Van Loan told Reuters News Agency that Canada hasn't made a final decision to reject the UAE's request that more landing slots at airports such as Pearson be given to its two air carriers.

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The Conservative minister said talks are continuing.

"I don't think there has been a 'no' per se. I think it's an ongoing negotiation," Mr. Van Loan told Reuters.

"We've been speaking in the past, and I hope we will be speaking again in the future. If we keep working at it and keep talking, I'm confident our positive relationship will continue."

The UAE last week gave Canada 30 days to vacate Camp Mirage, which Canadians have long used as a logistics base to fly cargo and troops to Afghanistan, about 1,200 kilometres north.

This came after Canada failed to meet UAE demands for what amounts to compensation for nine years of hosting Canadian soldiers at Camp Mirage. The UAE is seeking up to four flights more per week to Canada for each of its two carriers. Sources have told The Globe and Mail that the most Canada was willing to offer was one more weekly flight to each carrier.

Within hours of Mr. Van Loan's comments hitting the newswires, another government official denied, on background, that air-negotiation talks were still taking place.

And a spokesman for Transport Minister Chuck Strahl said that his department believes the existing air flight agreement with UAE adequately serves market needs.

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"The rights under the current Canada-UAE air transport agreement meet the market demands of travellers whose origin or final destination is either Canada or the UAE," spokesman Jacques Fauteux said.

Asked to clarify his remarks, Mr. Van Loan would only say that Ottawa remains ready to talk.

"As a matter of course, we constantly evaluate appropriate levels of service for travellers. We are always open to discuss these matters because we want to encourage sustainable long-term competition for the development of expanded air services for the benefit of businesses, shippers, tourism and Canadian travellers."

The Harper cabinet split over the UAE dispute behind closed doors. Sources told The Globe and Mail earlier this week that Mr. Van Loan was one of several ministers, including Defence Minister Peter MacKay and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz who had spoken out in favour of giving UAE more landing rights.

Earlier this week the UAE escalated the conflict by barring Mr. MacKay and Canada's top general from flying through its airspace on a return flight from Afghanistan. Canada is supposed to vacate Camp Mirage by Nov. 5, according to an eviction notice from the UAE.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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