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Ontario Premier Doug Ford makes an announcement at Sheridan College in Brampton, Ont., on Friday, January 31, 2020. Mr. Ford will address the gathering on Saturday night, but most of the convention is closed to the media, including policy discussions.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party is gathering for a policy conference this weekend amid widespread teachers’ protests, uproar over the province’s new blue licence plates and criticism by a party official about the event’s legitimacy.

About 1,000 PC members are expected to attend the two-day conference, which will feature a speech from Ontario Premier Doug Ford, closed-door policy sessions and hospitality suites sponsored by federal Conservative leadership front-runners Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole.

On Saturday, thousands of unionized workers and activists are set to descend on the Niagara Falls conference the day after a provincewide strike by four teachers’ unions. Teachers were also protesting Friday outside of the convention centre where the conference is being held.

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Saturday’s protest, organized by the Ontario Federation of Labour, will feature leaders of teachers’ unions, health-care workers and autism advocates who have all been highly critical of Mr. Ford’s government. The union is organizing buses from more than 30 locations across the province to attend the rally.

“When you talk to people across Ontario, they’re not happy with what Doug Ford is doing, they’re not happy with the direction he has gone, and they’re really concerned for the next two years,” said OFL president Patty Coates.

Harvey Bischof, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation (OSSTF), said it’s important for the broader labour movement to show that education is a priority in the province.

“Education is not just about the educators who work in it, it’s a support for the children of all working families in this province,” he said.

The party gathering comes after a difficult first week back in the legislature for Mr. Ford. The government was on the defensive after the province’s recently redesigned blue licence plates were found to be difficult to read at night and for certain cameras. The government, which blamed manufacturer 3M for the problem, has said that improved plates will roll out in the next three weeks.

Meanwhile, a member of the PC party executive, Bola Otaraki, criticized PC party president Brian Patterson in a six-page letter to MPPs and candidates, in which she said the convention is not a valid policy conference because she says it doesn’t follow the party’s constitution. Ms. Otaraki, the party’s third vice-president and policy chair, declined to comment but confirmed the authenticity of the letter.

“This event is nothing more than a glorified ‘pep rally,' ” she wrote.

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A party spokeswoman denied the claims.

“The claims made in a recent letter regarding the PCPO Policy Conference are categorically false. Our approach to the 2020 Policy Conference is in line with the Party’s Constitution, rules, and what has been done in the past,” said PC party spokeswoman Christina Wramhed.

PC House Leader Paul Calandra said he’s excited for the convention and said the policies discussed will help shape the party’s platform for the 2022 election.

“We’ve had a very good two years in government, when you look at what we’ve accomplished in terms of jobs and economic growth," he said.

He dismissed criticism from within the party as part of a healthy debate.

“I’d think we’d be a very boring party if all members of our party believed everything the exact same way," Mr. Calandra told reporters this week.

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“That’s what the whole point of the convention … it’s about bringing people into the room, debating and discussing the policies that not only are important to our grassroots, but are the policies that ultimately will find their way into the next election campaign."

Mr. Ford will address the gathering on Saturday night, but most of the convention is closed to the media, including policy discussions. The Premier’s speech, which will be open, is expected to be a rallying call to the party’s base and looking toward the 2022 election.

NDP Leader Andrea Horwath, whose party will be attending the protest on Saturday, accused the PC party of hiding from scrutiny.

“They are hunkering down and avoiding any kind of public viewing of what’s going on at their convention. But look, this how Mr. Ford operates … it’s all about backroom deals," she said.

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