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Conservative Leader Erin O’Toole is facing calls from both sides of the labour debate to explain his past support for two Conservative bills that were criticized as anti-union, in light of his recent call for increased unionization and stronger rights for workers.

Mr. O’Toole voted in favour of Bills C-377 and C-525, two Conservative private member’s bills that became law during the final year of then-prime minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government.

After the Liberals defeated the Conservatives in October, 2015, one of the first acts of the Justin Trudeau government was to repeal both pieces of legislation.

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Bill C-377 required labour organizations to provide significantly more detail in their public financial disclosures, including all transactions of $5,000 or more. Bill C-525 created a legal requirement that any vote to certify or decertify a union should be by secret ballot. The bills were widely criticized by unions who said they created an unfair reporting burden and made it much harder for workers to unionize.

In a speech this fall to a Toronto business audience, Mr. O’Toole outlined a new tone for his party by emphasizing the need to ensure the rights of workers are protected.

“It may surprise you to hear a Conservative bemoan the decline of private-sector union membership. But this was an essential part of the balance between what was good for business and what was good for employees. Today, that balance is dangerously disappearing.” Mr. O’Toole said at the time.

Mr. O’Toole’s speech “shocked” many people who supported those bills, says Walter Pamic, who ran as a Conservative Party candidate in 2015. Mr. Pamic is board chair for Merit Canada, an organization that advocates for non-unionized, or open-shop, construction associations and that was a strong supporter of both bills.

“I’ve spoken to many business owners who are also, coincidentally, members of the party or support conservative values, and they’re not happy with it,” he said. “It doesn’t really seem to be a conservative principle.”

Mr. Pamic said Mr. O’Toole’s comments are at odds with his past support of those two bills.

“I don’t think they’re compatible at all. It’s like speaking out of both sides of your mouth,” he said.

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Mr. O’Toole’s press secretary, Chelsea Tucker, declined to say whether the Conservative Leader continues to support the bills.

“Mr. O’Toole is committed to unionized workers and is looking for new ways to support workers," she said in a statement, adding that the Conservative Leader “will have more to share in the coming weeks.” Mr. O’Toole’s labour critic, Mark Strahl, could not be reached for comment.

Since winning the party leadership by campaigning as a “True Blue” Conservative, Mr. O’Toole has emphasized his desire to lead a big-tent party that is open to Canadians who have not always voted for the Conservatives.

Mr. O’Toole, who represents the Ontario riding of Durham, appears to be taking inspiration from provincial conservative efforts to make inroads with some private-sector unions.

After a falling out with the Ontario Liberals under Premier Kathleen Wynne, the Laborers' International Union of North America, LiUNA, endorsed Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford during the 2018 provincial election.

In an interview, LiUNA International Vice-President Joseph Mancinelli said he is prepared to endorse the Ford government again and that the federal Conservatives could learn from Mr. Ford’s approach.

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“Doug Ford was smart enough to understand that trade unions are also an important constituency,” he said. “He’s been a very strong ally of the construction movement ever since.”

At the same time, Mr. Mancinelli said he would also re-endorse the federal Liberals, who he said have been good to the labour movement.

Mr. Mancinelli said the membership of unions like his inevitably include supporters of all major political parties and so he welcomes Mr. O’Toole’s effort to reach out.

However, he said Mr. O’Toole needs to explain his past support of those two bills, which Mr. Mancinelli said were draconian and despicable.

“The attacks that were made by the Harper government on the labour movement were unprecedented by a federal government,” he said. “I’m hoping that we will see an absolute denial of [Bill C-377] by everyone. Every party should go against any kind of anti-labour legislation.”

Mr. Strahl, the Conservative labour critic, spoke by phone Friday with Canadian Labour Congress President Hassan Yussuff for a general discussion. Mr. Yussuff said in an interview Monday that he raised concerns with the MP regarding Mr. O’Toole’s support for those two bills and for not supporting the Liberal government’s move to increase Canada Pension Plan premiums and benefits. Mr. Yussuff said Mr. Strahl acknowledged the issues but did not address them directly.

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“Any unionized worker hearing O’Toole’s new line would have to be skeptical. It sounds like election engineering on his part to try to gain the support of workers,” Mr. Yussuff said. “Until he speaks directly as to how he reconciles his anti-union record with his new views, I remain quite cynical.”

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