One tourist company struggles to stay afloat in the midst of downtown job action

Kiosks for Lady Dive Tours and Gray Line Ottawa rely on the free-flowing foot traffic from tourists along Sparks Street as the tourist season ramps up. Photo provided

A week into the federal public service strike, the owner of a small tourism company on Sparks Street says the picketing currently underway downtown will be “devastating” to his business if it continues.

Étienne LeBlanc-Cameron, owner of Lady Dive Tours, Cobblestone Tours and Gray Line Ottawa, is just ramping up business for the busy spring tourism season, but picketers from the Public Service Alliance of Canada have moved into the area and he says “It’s been crazy” — but not in a good way.

His company has two kiosks on the corner of Sparks and Wellington streets where tourists can access his services. However, picketers have put posters on the kiosks and set up speakers to play music and many are gathering in the area, blocking the “free flow” of traffic that LeBlanc-Cameron relies on.

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“There are a lot less people walking there because there’s this commotion, which is the opposite of what tourists want,” he explained. “We’re right in the middle of it.”

It couldn’t have come at a worse time for LeBlanc-Cameron. On Monday, Lady Dive and Gray Line started tours for the “hot season” with buses scheduled to pick up customers on the corner of Sparks and Elgin. “Hopefully (the tourists will) see our buses and walk right by,” he said. “But I’m worried. Our primary market is tourists and they have to try not to get entangled.”

There is currently only one employee working at the two kiosks, but LeBlanc said there will be up to 10 starting next week.

While he prefers to remain impartial, LeBlanc-Cameron said he supports the picketers’ right to strike. That being said, he is very worried about how it will affect his business. If the strike were to continue, he said it would “honestly be really bad for us … devastating.”

“They’ve treated our staff very nicely, I’m super happy that they’re doing it,” he said of the picketers. “It’s just the worst place to be for us.”

Federal ministers said Tuesday they are monitoring for blockades of critical roads and infrastructure as the striking federal workers make good on a promise to ramp up efforts by disrupting traffic and limiting access to office buildings in downtown Ottawa.

More than 150,000 federal public servants were on strike for the seventh straight day Tuesday as their union representatives continued to negotiate with the government for a bigger wage increase and more flexibility to work remotely.

Around the National Capital Region, hundreds of striking workers made their presence felt and heard, circling buildings, chanting through megaphones and blasting music throughout the morning.

Hundreds of public servants marched across the Portage Bridge between Ottawa and Gatineau where some of the biggest federal buildings are located, holding up traffic for a short period Tuesday morning.

Outside the Prime Minister’s Office building and the Treasury Board headquarters a few blocks away, strikers limited entry to just one person every five minutes.

The escalation in the strike activity comes after a promise by union president Chris Aylward that picket lines would move to more “strategic locations,” including ports of entry where the strike would have a greater economic impact.

“On one hand, they have the right to strike and demonstrate,” Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne told reporters Tuesday.

“On the other hand, we need to make sure that the economy can continue functioning around the country.”

Transport Minister Omar Alghabra said he has been in contact with ports and airports to make sure they have contingency plans in place.

“I know Canadians would like us to avoid disruption to travel and supply chains, and our focus is to resolve this at the negotiation table,” he said.

Treasury Board President Mona Fortier told reporters on Tuesday afternoon that both parties were at the bargaining table Tuesday morning.

In an open letter published on Monday afternoon, Fortier identified four main areas of disagreement that remain between the union and the government: wages, teleworking, outsourcing contracts and seniority rules in the event of a layoff.

When asked if the current offer to increase wages by nine per cent over three years was the final offer by the federal government, Fortier did not give a clear response. Speaking in French, she said that the offer was based off the recommendation of the third-party Public Interest Commission.

The union has been pushing for a 13.5 per cent increase in pay for its members over the same period of time.

Federal and provincial governments are more aware than ever about how vulnerable and critical major roadways and ports of entry are after last year’s “Freedom Convoy,” said Ambarish Chandra, an associate professor of economics at the University of Toronto.

While those events are a far cry from the activities of public servants on strike, federal workers’ decision to target points of critical infrastructure could inspire copycat events, said Chandra.

With files from the Canadian Press

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