TORONTO — An Ontario judge has given Sears Canada the green light to immediately proceed with reaching out to potential buyers while it’s under creditor protection.Ontario Superior Court Justice Glenn Hainey approved the motion for the sale and investor solicitation process Thursday, following hours of discussions between lawyers representing the company, its lenders and retirees and laid-off employees.According to the decision, the national retailer and its court-ordered monitor, FTI Consulting Inc., can select one or more successful bids by Oct. 25.In separate documents filed by Sears Canada’s lawyers prior to Thursday’s hearing, the retailer’s chief financial officer said it’s “crucial” to begin liquidation sales of inventory no later than July 21 and to complete them by Oct. 12. Hainey is expected to hear that motion Tuesday.Sears Canada announced in June that it planned on closing 59 locations across the country and cutting approximately 2,900 jobs as part of a restructuring under the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act.The department store owner wants to shutter dozens of stores in the coming weeks while it negotiates with potential buyers who might acquire some or all of the company’s remaining assets, pending court approvals.“I’m in total shock this happened,” said Zobedida Maharaj, who was one of dozens of former employees who packed an overflowing Toronto courtroom to hear Thursday’s proceedings.Maharaj, 53, said she had worked at Sears Canada for 28 years before she was laid off at the end of March when her store was closed.The senior manager of operations and merchandise said she was initially told she would get eight weeks of severance and benefits, but was cut off June 22 when the company secured temporary court protection from creditors.“It’s like getting slapped in the face,” Maharaj said.Earlier in the day, Sears Canada struck a deal over benefit and pension payments to retired employees. The retailer had initially asked the court for permission to immediately halt payments for pension, health and dental benefits for laid-off employees, retirees and surviving spouses due to a severe cash crunch, but later agreed to continue payments to retirees until Sept. 30.Many former employees said the company’s compromise on temporarily paying retiree benefits and pension compensation has them cautiously hopeful.Pina Rupa, 58, from Vaughan, Ont., said outside the courthouse that she hoped Sears Canada, where she worked for nearly 40 years, would reinstate her benefits and severance which she said were worth tens of thousands of dollars.“I was such a loyal employee,” said Rupa, who was laid off from the company’s head office.Employment lawyer Susan Ursel, whose firm represents more than 17,000 non-unionized former and current employees, said her law office is filing motions to ask the court to reinstate benefit, severance and pension payments to the workers who were laid off. It is also asking to set up a temporary hardship fund for those who are in dire need of cash and health benefits.Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne said her government is paying close attention to the situation but there isn’t a role it can play at this point.Follow @LindaNguyenTO and @DavidPaddon on Twitter.
(Updated)After 41 days of campaigning — In less than 24 hours, millions of us will head to the polls to determine who will form the next government of Ontario. Some have already cast their ballots in advance polls. But many will make their final decision Thursday and because of that the party leaders are campaigning hard – hoping to win the approval of those undecided voters.All three leaders made multiple stops Wednesday in a final push for votes. And once again the Liberal leader found herself apologizing. Not what you want to be doing on the day before an election.Wynne said a Liberal campaign flyer depicting her Progressive Conservative rival laughing as a hospital explodes behind him is “not acceptable.”The flyers show a super imposed Tory leader Tim Hudak’s image over top of the Joker character from the Batman movie “The Dark Knight.” They were distributed in Vaughan where Liberal candidate Stephen Del Duca currently holds the riding. He apologized on Twitter. Today on CHCH “News Now”, Wynne also apologized: “I apologize to the residents who received that piece of literature. It should not have happened and as I say, the campaign apologized and we need to recognize it shouldn’t have happened and it was a mistake.”NDP Leader Andrea Horwath was in Oshawa Wednesday afternoon. She told supporters that while Thursday is an important day for her — it’s the public who has a lot to lose if they don’t vote NDP: “The stakes are high. Not necessarily are the stakes high for the politicians. But the stakes are high for the people of this province. They deserve much better than what they’ve had over the last number of years. I’m sure that as they go to the polls tomorrow, they’ll be more thinking about ‘how do we get a province that respects us? How do we get a government that respects us.”On a stop in Niagara Wednesday afternoon, the PC leader called for change in Ontario. He said he would re-ignite the economy, create jobs and stop expensive hand outs to large corporations. And he’s sticking to his million jobs plan message despite criticism from unions, economists and the Liberals. He says it shows the Liberals are desperate: “Voters in Niagara Falls and across the province have an opportunity to send this era of corruption, waste and incompetence into the past. Voters in Niagara Falls are going to have a chance to turn us away from this cliff of debt. And voters will have a chance for a real turnaround plan. And voters will have a chance to vote for our plan — for lower taxes, affordable energy, and a lot more jobs.”Wynne is wrapping up her last stop at the supper hour in Toronto.Hudak is in Jarvis, Ontario tonight at 7.And Horwath is in Kingston with federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair at 6:45.CHCH’s Your Home, Your Vote coverage starts at 8 tomorrow night. We’ll have reporters at the leaders’ party headquarters as well as in key local ridings. We also have a panel of experts in place.