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NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during a campaign stop in Apex, Nunavut, on Sept. 30, 2015.

Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press

Thomas Mulcair and his New Democrats are walking a delicate line between job preservation in the rust belt of Southwestern Ontario and taking a strong stand against arms sales to a country with a deplorable record on human rights.

Mr. Mulcair has qualms with a deal, brokered in secret by Ottawa, to supply Saudi Arabia with $15-billion worth of light armoured vehicles produced by General Dynamics Land Systems Canada.

But Unifor, Canada's largest private-sector union, which represents employees at the General Dynamics plant in London, Ont., has warned the NDP Leader against publicly criticizing the contract because its cancellation could throw thousands of people – and hundreds of its members – out of work.

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The NDP prides itself as being a staunch defender of human rights. It is also a party that was founded by the labour movement. Fighting for workers jobs and rights remains a top New Democratic priority. And that may be especially true in the region of the country stretching between Toronto and Windsor, which has been hard-hit by plant closings and where the NDP has designs on Conservative seats.

After the London Free Press newspaper quoted a Unifor official on Wednesday as saying the union had contacted Mr. Mulcair to warn him against making the arms contract an issue in the current election campaign, Unifor issued a statement deflecting heat from the NDP and blaming the Conservative government for secrecy surrounding the deal.

"The bottom line is that the contract has been signed," said the union. "The NDP have indicated that they will respect the contract. No one is losing any jobs. What we will gain with a change in government is the transparency Canadians deserve."

Unifor has not endorsed any party in this election. Its bosses are instead urging members to vote for any candidate that has a legitimate shot at defeating a Conservative. The NDP does have endorsements from other unions, including the Canadian Union of Public Employees and the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. But New Democratic officials say the support of big labour has been less critical to the party since election laws were changed to forbid unions from making political donations.

Still, it would be more than awkward for the NDP Leader to find himself in a public fight with one of Canada's predominant unions at any time.

The exchange between Unifor and Mr. Mulcair took place after the issue was raised during the French-language leadership debate last Thursday night.

On Friday of last week, the NDP Leader suggested that the contract should not have been signed in the first place because federal rules oblige the Department of Foreign Affairs to examine whether arms shipments to countries with poor human-rights records would further endanger civilians there.

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"I think Mr. Harper is in fact breaking the rules that we set up here in Canada a long time ago. Look, you have to look at the record of human rights of people before giving a contract," Mr. Mulcair told reporters in French.

Irene Mathyssen, the New Democratic candidate running for re-election in the riding of London-Fanshawe, says that, despite her leader's concerns about how the contract came to be, it would not be scrapped after the election of an NDP government.

Ms. Mathyssen said she has had many conversations with the management at General Dynamics and Unifor since she was first elected in 2006, and she has also had discussions with Mr. Mulcair about the importance of the company to her community.

"So yes, he is very aware," Ms. Mathyssen said Wednesday in a telephone interview, "and that's why he was very clear in the debate that we would honour the contract, we don't renege on contracts. It's a signed contract and we will honour that contract."

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