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Conservatives accused of trying to distract from stating position on replacement workers ban

Poilievre speaks at a news conference in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang Poilievre speaks at a news conference in the Foyer of the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Justin Tang
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OTTAWA -

Federal Conservatives were accused of trying to distract and confuse Wednesday as they were pressed to state their position on a piece of Liberal government legislation banning the use of replacement workers, at a time when Pierre Poilievre is trying to pitch his party as worker-friendly.

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois have already thrown their support behind Bill C-58, which seeks to ban the use of replacement workers in federally regulated workplaces such as airlines, railways, ports and telecommunications. If the bill passes, companies would be fined $100,000 per day for each violation.

The government developed in concert with the federal New Democrats, who used their supply-and-confidence agreement with the Liberals to expand the proposal so it would cover strikes in addition to lockouts.

With both of those parties pledging their support for the bill, it is widely expected to be passed.

The only question for MPs debating it for the first time on Wednesday was whether that would happen with or without the support of the federal Conservatives.

Heading into the debate, which is the first step for any piece of legislation before MPs decide to send it to a parliamentary committee for study, Poilievre did not divulge whether he supports the government bill.

Asked earlier in the day how his party plans to vote, the Conservative leader would only say: "We will be voting on that."

He then went on to criticize the prime minister for allowing "foreign replacement workers" to help build a government-subsidized battery plant in Windsor, Ont.

Recent concerns have focused on Windsor police saying they were helping to prepare for a potential 1,600 workers from South Korea to come and help build the NextStar EV battery factory, which is expected to cost upwards of $15 billion in public support.

Immigration Minister Marc Miller has said that businesspeople from that country can work in Canada as governed by a free-trade deal. The company said earlier this week that it still plans to hire about 2,500 Canadians to run the plant, and is also engaging up to 2,300 local and regional tradespeople to help build it.

O'Regan said the government wants to see the plant populated by Canadian workers, but added there is space for "a certain amount of training" by employees from outside the country.

During debate about the bill, Conservative MPs took turns in the House of Commons pointing to concerns around the battery plant and accusing the government of being hypocritical and inconsistent.

Rick Perkins, who represents a Nova Scotia riding, pointed out that the bill does not have a bearing on contracts involving Canadian tax dollars, and won't apply to federal workers.

"Apples, apples, apples. Oranges, oranges, oranges," O'Regan told MPs in the wake of Conservative concerns, saying the situation involving the battery plant is completely different.

Marilyn Gladu, a Conservative MP from southern Ontario, raised concerns about the potential impact the bill could have on the nuclear industry. O'Regan said that essential services will be looked after.

Luc Berthold, a Tory MP from Quebec, also told his colleagues in French that given there is a clause in the bill that stipulates it will not come into effect until 18 months after the law is passed, they should not believe that the changes will actually happen.

The Bloc has been pushing for that timeline to be removed from the bill so that it would take effect right away, but O'Regan has said that the delay was requested by agencies that help to resolve labour disputes.

The attacks from the Conservatives prompted NDP MP Daniel Blaikie to accuse the party of trying to "conflate issues" and "distract."

Labour leaders have long called for the measures outlined in the bill.

But business groups such as the Canadian Federation of Independent Business and the Canadian Chamber of Commerce have warned that the change could lead to longer disputes and take away a reason for unions to remain at bargaining tables.

That debate is happening as Poilievre pitches the Conservatives as standing on the side of workers, whether they are unionized or not.

Since becoming Tory leader last year, Poilievre has steered the party's message to focus mainly on affordability, saying people are suffering because of skyrocketing housing costs and a cost-of-living crisis that he blames on the policies of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

He has delivered that pitch directly to the country's working class, particularly in blue-collar ridings in northern Ontario and parts of British Columbia, where the Conservatives see a chance to pick up seats from both the Liberals and NDP.

Poilievre told reporters while in B.C. last week that he needed to first study the recently tabled legislation before taking a position on it.

Earlier in the week, O'Regan took direct aim at Poilievre's record when it comes to supporting unions.

In a video on X, the social-media platform previously known as Twitter, he charged that despite the fact Poilievre "talks a big game about workers," the Conservative leader is "terrified" of them.

He accused the longtime Ottawa MP of attacking unions throughout his nearly 20-year career in Parliament, which once included support for a measure that would allow federal workers to opt out of paying union dues.

Labour leaders have also decried Poilievre's past, while the Conservative leader has steered clear of wading into debates that earned him an unfavourable reputation among union leaders to begin with.

For example, the Tories did not call for striking workers to get back on the job when federal public servants hit the picket lines back in April, and instead blamed Trudeau's spending for the inflationary pressures that were underlying the job action.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 22, 2023.

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