Ontario Progressive Conservative leader Patrick Brown has been meeting with teachers, and speaking to labour organizations, in an effort to repair the dysfunctional relationship between these groups and his party.
His attempt to extend an olive branch is part of his strategy leading into the 2018 provincial election.
For many of the union leaders, this is the first time they have met or heard from a PC leader in years. Mr. Brown's predecessor, Tim Hudak, had an acrimonious relationship with teachers and other labour groups, disinviting them from party events and touting policies, such as cutting 100,000 public-sector workers, which were anathema to them.
In the 2014 provincial election, teachers aggressively campaigned against the Tories, spending liberally on anti-PC ads. Kathleen Wynne's Liberals, considered an education-friendly party, formed a majority government.
However, with the new PC leadership – Mr. Brown was elected last May – union leaders are listening carefully to see if his words translate into a change of direction in party policy.
At the PC Party convention in early March in Ottawa, Mr. Brown and his members will launch a year-long, policy-development process. At least two of the teachers' unions are sending observers.
Mr. Brown has a lot of work to do to persuade not only labour groups, but his own members, that policies can be changed. He believes he can do it.
"This is not your father's Progressive Conservative Party," he said in a recent interview. "This is a party that a year and a half ago was 10,000 members. Now we're 80,000. We are younger and more diverse … maybe the small, narrow membership of 10,000 wouldn't have accepted some more progressive ideas but the reality is the teachers, the nurses, the doctors, they're all part of the new membership we are talking about."
He boasted that there are "thousands of nurses" who are now actively involved in the party, as are firefighters and teachers. He suggested, too, that there are high-profile people from those sectors inquiring about running to be candidates. He won't say who.
Ann Hawkins, president of the Ontario English Catholic Teachers' Association (OECTA), has met with Mr. Brown, and says he was open about "recognizing that there was a difficulty with the relationship" between the party and the teachers.
Ms. Hawkins says "it speaks volumes" that Mr. Brown decided to take on the education critic's role, and she says she is keeping her "fingers crossed" that the statements he has made about how important education is to him will be borne out in PC policy.
"We reached out to Hudak. We didn't get much of a response, I will be perfectly honest. We actually had an invitation turned back on us. That was somewhat problematic," she said about being disinvited to the 2011 leader's dinner.
OECTA, which represents 34,000 teachers, is sending observers to the March convention.
In 2014, OECTA spent $2.14-million on election-related activities – and have donated to the Ontario Liberals. Ms. Hawkins says her union supports whichever party is going to have an "education-friendly government."
Paul Elliott, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation (OSSTF), is also sending observers to the Tory convention. He has not met with Mr. Brown nor has he received an invitation to do so.
"We're still waiting to see if there is any change in policy direction from the current PCs under Mr. Brown compared to Mr. Hudak," he said.
Last fall, Mr. Brown spoke at the Ontario Building and Construction Trades Council conference in Windsor. Pat Dillon, the organization's spokesman, says that Mr. Brown was "quite well-received."
"Hudak would never have spoken," said Mr. Dillon, believing that Bill Davis, the former PC premier from 1971 to 1985, was the last PC leader to address council, which represents 150,000 construction workers.
Mr. Dillon, who is also the head of the labour umbrella group, Working Families, which campaigned against the Hudak Tories in 2014, says he was disinvited from the PC fundraising dinner in 2011.
He has found a different tone under Mr. Brown's leadership.
"I've been to two or three fundraisers with Patrick Brown," said Mr. Dillon. "Every MPP who was sort of standoffish back in the Hudak days are all rather friendly now, so that's a good thing."
Still, he is waiting to see if policies change: "It's all in the eating of the pudding, not in the aroma while it's cooking."