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Beginning on Friday, Engage Canada will begin running television ads across Canada that target Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s economic record and paint him as out of touch with “middle-class priorities.”Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

A group of high-level Liberal and New Democratic backroom veterans has collected millions of dollars from unions and other centre-left interests to run a pre-election advertising campaign attacking Stephen Harper's Conservatives.

Beginning on Friday, the group – which calls itself Engage Canada – will begin running television ads across Canada that target Mr. Harper's economic record and paint him as out of touch with "middle-class priorities."

The first of those ads claims that "inequality is skyrocketing" under the current government, with an accompanying graph, and accuses the Conservatives of cutting economic development and health care. It ends with the tag line "The Harper Conservatives: They won't be there for you."

The effort appears to confirm Conservatives' fears of a federal equivalent of Working Families Coalition – the union umbrella group that has spent massively on attack ads in the past several Ontario elections, contributing to a run of losses for that province's Progressive Conservatives.

There have been no such co-ordinated efforts to influence recent federal elections, and organized labour has generally played a less prominent role in them than in provincial ones. But unions' leadership have been galvanized by proposed federal legislation that, among other measures, would make unions harder to form and easier to decertify, and force them to open up their books. Engage Canada appears largely an attempt to capitalize on that sentiment, with the Liberal and NDP campaign veterans encouraging the unions to pool their resources for an assault on the governing party.

Engage Canada's leadership group includes Don Guy, who was campaign director for former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty; Dave Gene, who was a deputy chief of staff for Mr. McGuinty and worked alongside Mr. Guy on Ontario Liberal campaigns; and Kathleen Monk, who was director of communications for the late NDP leader Jack Layton. Sources indicated that Brian Topp, a former national campaign director for the NDP, was also involved in early discussions, but that he ceased his involvement before he became chief of staff to Alberta Premier Rachel Notley.

A spokeswoman for Engage Canada described it on Thursday as a grassroots project. "We have been working quietly for several months to build a team and support from nearly three dozen progressive organizations and individuals to fund this first modest English language TV effort to give us a presence and help build awareness so that we can raise more money," Jessica Hume said in an e-mail.

Others told The Globe and Mail that large unions such as Unifor and United Steelworkers are among the biggest backers. An official with United Steelworkers confirmed that union's participation, but described it as "simply one of the participants."

Beyond any impact on Mr. Harper's fortunes, the effort will serve as a test for the ability of outside groups to influence federal elections – something made difficult by much more restrictive campaign-finance laws than in Ontario and many other provinces. Spending by any third-party organization during the official election period is capped at $150,000 nationally. As a result, any significant advertising campaign by outside interests will need to happen before then. A source familiar with Engage Canada's efforts said that it does not intend to advertise during the writ period at all, nor to register with Elections Canada as a third party for that purpose.

Other outside interests have already launched ad campaigns in recent months, including Conservative-friendly ones such as Working Canadians. In fact, Engage Canada is partly billing itself as a response to those campaigns, as well as to the Conservatives' heavy use of government advertising to help get their message out.

The group is stressing, including through the mix of Liberals and New Democrats leading it, that it will not be advocating for either of the main opposition parties– arguably a differentiation point from Working Families, which has frequently been accused of doing the Ontario Liberals' bidding.

Engage Canada will instead be aiming to target markets where Liberals or New Democrats are battling Conservatives, rather than each other. The only province in which its ads will not be running is Quebec, apparently because of the Conservatives' perceived lack of competitiveness there.

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