Strike vote at WestJet

The union that represents pilots at WestJet has called for a strike vote to press its demand for its first contract.

The Air Line Pilots Association says pilots began voting Wednesday and the balloting will continue for 15 days.

The Calgary-based airline and its pilots have been in contract negotiations since September.

A 60-day conciliation process ends April 27.

The pilots could then launch a strike after a 21-day cooling off period.

Capt. Rob McFadyen, chairman of the association's master executive council, says the two sides remain far apart on working conditions, compensation and job security.

McFadyen said the union's bargaining proposals are reasonable and consistent with the contracts that other pilots within North America enjoy.

"Unfortunately, our management team believes there is no issue with outsourcing our work and our careers," McFadyen said in a release.

"They expect us to just stand in place, be grateful to work for the company we helped build, and be willing to accept terms that are substandard compared to our peers.

"Our goal remains to reach a fair contract that also brings stability to the airline."

WestJet CEO Ed Sims responded to the association's release by noting a strike authorization vote is a common step taken by unions during labour negotiations.

"We remain focused on successfully negotiating an agreement that will benefit our pilots and WestJet," Sims said in a release.

McFadyen said the pilots hope to avoid a strike and the union is still open to negotiating an agreement.


Sunwing under investigation

The Canadian Transportation Agency says it is launching an inquiry into some mid-April Sunwing Airlines flights after receiving more than 80 complaints from passengers.

The agency says the flood of complaints stemmed from 23 flights to or from the Toronto Pearson International Airport between April 14 and 18 and relate to tarmac delays, flight delays, flight cancellations and lost, damaged and delayed baggage.

The CTA says its inquiry will focus on whether the airline respected its obligations toward passengers during the disruptions and if not, what corrective measures should be ordered.

The agency says preliminary information suggests there may have been systemic issues affecting the flights. It cites media reports that passengers were unable to disembark and not served drinks or snacks on some tarmac delays, while other flights were delayed as long as 29 hours.

The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The CTA, which is both a quasi-judicial tribunal and regulator, did not provide a timeline for the inquiry.

Softwood duties - doing OK

One year after the United States imposed stiff import duties on Canadian softwood, strong demand for wood and record market prices mean American consumers and not Canadian producers are feeling the pinch.

Unlike the last softwood dispute with the U.S., which led to the loss of 20,000 forestry jobs and saw an estimated 400 sawmills close in Canada, this time the industry in Canada is holding up just fine so far.

There has been very little uptake in federal aid programs, predictions of widespread job loss and mill closures haven't materialized, and demands to get a deal with the United States to solve the trade dispute seem to be taking a back seat to more pressing concerns about pests, forest fires and rail car shortages.

"We haven't seen any (mill) closures linked to the trade dispute to this point," said Derek Nighbor, president of the Forest Products Association of Canada.

After the U.S. announced its decision to apply duties on April 24, 2017, Canada responded with an $867-million aid package, including government-backed loans and loan guarantees, funds for innovation and aid for workers like extended job-sharing agreements. Thus far, only six workers have applied for job-sharing, and the Export Development Bank of Canada has doled out just $70 million of $500 million made available as loans to forestry companies.

"Overall, the Canadian softwood lumber sector is doing well, which explains the modest uptake on EDC's softwood lumber envelope," said EDC spokeswoman Jennifer Stewart in an emailed statement.

"In our discussions with Canadian lumber exporters, they are telling us that they have largely been shielded from the worst effects of softwood lumber duties."

Mostly, the companies have taken advantage of the situation to get help diversifying markets and pushing innovation in their products. A spokesman for Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr said $63 million in the forest innovation program has been fully disbursed and $55 million has been handed out for a forest industry transformation program, as has $11.8 million in aid to promote Canadian wood products in offshore markets.

The main buffer is a 30 per cent increase in prices, more than offsetting the 10 to 24 per cent import duties the U.S. has imposed. Data from the publicly traded lumber companies shows at least $195 million has been deposited with the U.S. to pay the duties, a number that is likely twice as big once the duties paid by privately-held companies are factored in. The actual amount paid is not currently public information.

The U.S. forest industry has long accused Canada of unfairly subsidizing its industry by setting low prices for trees on government-owned land.

In the meantime, U.S. consumers are paying more to build new homes, renovate existing homes and rebuild after massive hurricanes hit Florida and Texas last fall.

The U.S. National Association of Home Builders calls the duties imposed on Canada "a tax on American home builders and home buyers" and says since the U.S. can't meet all domestic demand for wood itself, it is turning to offshore companies to fill the void.


Is your BBQ brush safe?

The Standards Council of Canada says it is developing national guidelines for the manufacture of barbecue brushes after a number of cases in which people accidentally ingested wire bristles.

The Council is currently seeking proposals to establish the new standard, aimed at protecting consumer health and safety, after Health Canada opted last year not to ban wire-bristle brushes outright.

The new standard will examine the construction, testing, sale and use of the cleaning tools, with Health Canada, the Retail Council of Canada and industry experts consulting on the process.

Bristles have been known to come loose from the brush and become stuck in or on food, which is then consumed.

At least nine incidents of bristle ingestion have been reported to Health Canada since 2011.

The federal health agency investigated the safety of metal brushes in 2017 but proposed no recommendations for further regulatory action.

Alexa, make my kid polite

Alexa's new missions: encourage kids to ask questions more politely, and get them to bed on time.

The voice assistant that lives inside Amazon's Echo speakers will soon thank kids for shouting out questions "nicely" if they say "please." The new response is part of a kid-friendly update that's coming next month, giving parents more control over the voice assistant. Adults can set Alexa to go silent at bedtime, block music with explicit lyrics and call kids down to dinner.

In addition, Amazon will sell an $80 Echo Dot aimed at kids that comes with colorful cases and a 2-year warranty, promising to replace the device if it breaks.

Amazon's hope is that the changes will get more parents to put Echo speakers in their children's bedrooms.

Cdn toy maker sues Mattel

Canadian toy maker Spin Master Corp. has filed a patent suit in California against Mattel, Inc., claiming Mattel's transforming Mecard cars infringe on at least two of the Toronto-based company's patents.

The Toronto-based company's claim filed in a U.S. district court on Tuesday seeks compensation and a permanent injunction from using some of the mechanisms used in the Mecard toys.

Spin Master alleges it has patent rights to a transformation mechanism used with its Bakugan toys and that Mattel used the technology in its Mecard toys.

It says three other patent suits were filed last year by Spin Master against Mattel in Canada, Mexico and Australia.

Mattel Inc. has not yet replied to requests for comment.

Cenovus posts $914M loss

Cenovus Energy posted a $914 million net loss from continuing operations in the first quarter, a bigger shortfall than analysts had expected, amid challenging pricing conditions for heavy grades of crude oil as well as natural gas.

The Calgary-based company said the net loss amounted to 74 cents per share, which compared with a year earlier profit of $211 million or 25 cents per share.

The loss included a $100-million non-cash asset impairment charge for its Clearwater assets due to declining natural gas prices, as well as $469 million in risk-management losses.

The risk management loss was attributed to the company's decision last year, when prices were lower, to hedge 80 per cent of its oil production for the first half of 2018.

Operating loss from continuing operations was $752 million, or 61 cents per share, compared with a $39 million loss last year.

Revenue was $4.61 billion, up from $3.54 billion a year ago and above analyst estimates, as oilsands volumes nearly doubled as a result of an acquisition in May 2017.

Analysts had estimated a net loss of 12 cents per share with $4.2 billion of revenue, according to Thomson Reuters data.

"The challenges we experienced in the first quarter had a significant impact on our financial results, but the underlying performance of our assets remains very strong," Cenovus chief executive Alex Pourbaix said in a statement.

"I want to stress that these financial challenges are temporary and don't reflect Cenovus's significant potential for funds flow and earnings growth."

Cenovus announced last month that it had reduced production rates in response to an above-normal differential between the price between light and heavy grades of oil, as well as pipeline and storage constraints.

It said Wednesday that production was ramped up again to normal levels after prices for Western Canadian Select prices improved later in the quarter.

The first-quarter results were also affected by planned maintenance at two U.S. refineries operated by Phillips 66 and co-owned by Cenovus.

Comcast bids for Sky

U.S. media conglomerate Comcast has made a 22 billion pound ($30 billion) bid for London-based pay TV operator Sky in move that threatens a rival bid by Rupert Murdoch.

Comcast CEO Brian Roberts says his company's cash offer values each Sky share at 12.50 pounds, above the 21stCentury Fox offer of 10.75 pounds.

21stCentury Fox issued a statement saying it remains committed to its offer and is "currently considering its options."

21st Century Fox has offered to insulate Sky's news operations from the influence of Murdoch and his family, who already own several other media titles in the U.K., to win approval of its bid.

Comcast committed to maintain funding for 10 years for Sky News.

Combating 'vile' material

Canada and its G7 partners warned the world's biggest internet companies on Tuesday to do a better job of deleting "vile" material from their platforms and dangled the threat of forcing them if they fall short.

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said he and his fellow G7 security ministers delivered that message in their Tuesday meeting with Google, Facebook, Twitter and Microsoft: do more to prevent their platforms from being exploited by terrorists, sexual predators, human traffickers and purveyors of fake news.

"The message is: let's pick up the pace on the improvement that we need to see to get rid of this vile material," Goodale said.

"And if we don't see the pace improving fast enough, then we reserve the right to take other action. And I think the companies heard that message loud and clear."

The G7 security ministers' meeting in Toronto focused on addressing violent extremism and preventing the internet from being as a tool for training, propaganda and financing. But it was also overshadowed by Monday's deadly van attack, in which a rental van barrelled through a crowd of people on a north Toronto sidewalk, killing 10 pedestrians and injuring 15.

The internet giants addressed the G7 ministers last fall in Italy, but the ministers wanted to hear from them again to measure their progress.

Facebook, said Goodale, reported that in the first quarter this year it took action on 1.9 million pieces of content from the Islamic State and Al-Qaida — twice as much as in the quarter before that.

The G7's response was "thank you very much," Goodale said.

"Some progress is being reported. We need to see more," he added. "We're all in this together. It's not a case of us against them."

Bitcoin mines backlash

Bitcoin "miners" who use rows of computers whirring at the same time to produce virtual currencies began taking root along New York's northern border a couple of years ago to tap into some of the nation's cheapest hydroelectric power, offering an air of Silicon Valley sophistication to this often-snowy region.

But as the once-high-flying bitcoin market has waned, so too has the enthusiasm for bitcoin miners. Mining operations with stacks of servers suck up so much electricity that they are in some cases causing power rates to spike for ordinary customers.

"We don't want someone coming in, taking our resources, not creating the jobs they professed to create and then disappear," said Tim Currier, mayor of Massena, a village just south of the Canadian border, where bitcoin operator Coinmint recently announced plans to use the old aluminum plant site for a mining operation that would require 400 megawatts — roughly enough to power 300,000 homes at once.

In Plattsburgh, where two cryptocurrency operations have been blamed for spiking electricity rates, the prospect of more cryptocurrency miners plugging in spooked officials enough in March to enact an 18-month moratorium on new operations. The small border village of Rouses Point also is holding off on approving new server farms and Lake Placid is considering a moratorium.

For officials, the power struggle has been a crash course in the esoteric bitcoin mining business in which miners earn bitcoins by making complex calculations that verify transactions on the digital currency's public ledger.

Along the stretch of New York near the Canadian border, cheap hydro power from a dam spanning the St. Lawrence River is doled out by a state authority to local businesses that promise to create jobs. Additionally, some municipalities such as Massena and Plattsburgh receive cheap electricity from a separate hydro project near Niagara Falls.

In Plattsburgh, electricity is so cheap most residents use it instead of oil or wood to heat their homes. The couple of commercial cryptocurrency mines here can get an industrial rate of about 3 cents per kilowatt hour — less than half the national average.

But Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read said its largest operator, Coinmint, which has two plants employing 20 or fewer people, can consume about 10 per cent of Plattsburgh's 104 megawatt cheap electricity quota. When the city exceeded its allocation like it did this winter, customers ended up paying $10 to $30 more a month for the extra electricity. For a major employer like Mold-Rite Plastics plant, it cost them at least $15,000 in February.

State regulators have since given municipal utilities the ability to charge higher rates to cryptocurrency miners. At least one bitcoin miner in Plattsburgh says he's working with the city on solutions to the power worries.

Ryan Brienza, founder and CEO of the hosting company Zafra, said those could include mining on behalf of the city for an hour a day or harnessing the heat from mining computers to warm up large spaces.

Coinmint's plans for a new plant in Massena come with a promise of 150 jobs. That's welcome in an area that in the past decade has suffered though the loss of aluminum-making jobs and the closure of a General Motors powertrain plant.

Proxy fight at Crescent Point


A second institutional investor proxy advisory firm is wading into the fight by a dissident shareholder to elect a slate of four directors to the 10-member board at Crescent Point Energy Corp.

Unlike Institutional Shareholder Services Inc., however, Glass Lewis & Co. is recommending that shareholders vote for all of Crescent Point's director nominees and none of those put forward by Cation Capital Inc.

Glass Lewis says shareholders should also vote in favour of the oil and gas producer's approach to executive compensation, one of the issues identified by Cation, even though it gives a "D" grade in its report for pay for performance and says the top five executives earn more than the average on a list of their peers.

ISS last week suggested shareholders should vote for two of Cation's four nominees at the company's annual meeting May 4 because there is a "reasonably compelling case" for board change to improve capital spending decisions, enhance profitability and bring executive compensation in line.

Crescent Point endorses the Glass Lewis report, pointing out in a news release it supports the current board's efforts to address shareholder concerns and finds Cation's plan "decidedly vague and bereft of any meaningful substance."

In response, Cation says the Glass Lewis recommendation is "entirely flawed," charging that the advisory firm didn't fairly consult with Cation about its plan for Crescent Point.

Mitel signs deal for sale

Mitel Networks Corp. has signed a deal to be acquired by an investor group led by Searchlight Capital Partners for about C$2.6 billion, including debt.

Under the agreement, Mitel shareholders are being offered US$11.15 per share in cash.

Mitel shares closed at US$10.16 on the Nasdaq on Monday and C$13.04 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.

Under the deal, Mitel will become a privately held company, a move it says will provide it with additional flexibility.

The business communications firm says its board of directors has unanimously determined that the offer is in the best interests of the company and will recommend shareholders approve the deal.

Searchlight is a private investment firm with investments in North America and Europe.

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