at Transport Canada
Just Another Day At The Office?
The Environment Canada forecast for September 11 called for sunny skies and seasonably mild temperatures.
A labour dispute between the Government of Canada and the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) had been simmering since July. PSAC called a one-day national strike for the 11th. In downtown Ottawa, Transport Canada was an obvious location for strike action. Tower C of Place de Ville is the head office for Transport Canada and home to thousands of employees. It also happens to be the tallest building in Ottawa. Union members encircled Tower C with a picket line.
The planned PSAC strike action brought François Marion and his team of staff relations and other human resources managers to Tower C early that morning, around 5:30 a.m. They met to finalize plans for the day ahead. There were ongoing discussions with the union about issues that had arisen, including the entry of employees into the building. "Everything was going well until about 7:30 or 8 o'clock," Marion says. "Then the picket line hardened and people started having trouble entering the building."
Place de Ville, Tower C
Anticipating the strike, some Transport Canada staff made a point of getting to work early. People like Jean LeCours, Director of Preventive Security, and Jean Barrette, Director of Security Operations, who was busy poring over a report of a bomb threat at an airport the night before.
Merrill Smith was beginning his second day of on-the-job training in the Communications Group. A veteran of more than 20 years at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, Smith had been told that he would find Transport Canada a relatively quiet place where things ran pretty smoothly and he shouldn't expect any overtime. The irony of that advice would soon become dramatically clear in the long days and weeks ahead.
Diana MacTier, a regional Employee Assistance Program counsellor with Transport Canada, was busy getting ready to hold an information session to promote a six-week employee course entitled "Preventing Burnout."
The strike disrupted operations at Transport Canada but it did not completely bring them to a standstill.
Transport Minister David Collenette was in Montreal, delivering a speech to a conference of airport executives from around the world. Then Deputy Minister, Margaret Bloodworth, was one block away from Tower C, at meetings at Industry Canada. Then Associate Deputy Minister, Louis Ranger, was in Montreal with the Minister. The Assistant Deputy Minister for Safety and Security, Bill Elliott, was at a conference in Beijing. A group of Civil Aviation managers was at meetings in Edmonton. And Julie Mah, then Manager, Policy & Consultation, Explosives Detection Systems (EDS) Project, was beginning her day just over an hour's drive east of Ottawa, in Rigaud, Quebec, where she was participating in a management course.
This air of relative normalcy was punctured at 8:45 a.m., when American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in New York. Eighteen minutes later, a second passenger plane, United Airlines Flight 175, struck the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Two staff relations advisors, Pat McCauley and Eric Daoust, were monitoring the strike from the Situation Centre on the 14th floor. They stared in stunned disbelief at the live pictures being flashed across two giant television screens of the second plane knifing through the South Tower. "You knew that the second plane was not a replay and it wasn't a movie, although it could have been," Lyne Landriault, Chief, Staff Relations, recalled later. "We realized then that what had been the obsession of our work lives for quite some time [the labour dispute] suddenly… seemed inconsequential."
The horrible news spread with lightning speed through Tower C down to the concourse below and the picketers. Once union leaders and members understood the magnitude of the events, they were also obviously shaken. Without hesitation, they immediately stopped the picket lines and went back to work to offer whatever assistance was necessary.