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Ontario Premier Doug Ford is seen during a news conference in Toronto, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020. Ontario Premier Doug Ford says he will travel to Washington, D.C., next week and will unveil the province's new trade strategy with the United States.

Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

Ontario Premier Doug Ford began his 2022 re-election campaign on Saturday with a speech to the Progressive Conservative party faithful that focused on his government’s economic record and looked to appeal to workers who are growing offside with union leadership.

Mr. Ford’s 18-minute dinner speech to some 1,000 PC members at the party’s policy conference in Niagara Falls came after labour unions protested outside the convention centre on Saturday, warning a general strike could be on the horizon if the provincial government doesn’t change its policies, including on education.

In response, the PC crowd gave a standing ovation at the dinner to Education Minister Stephen Lecce, who was the focal point of the morning’s protest, and whom Mr. Ford has nicknamed “Letch.” “They love you Letch, keep going, don’t give up,” Mr. Ford said.

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The Premier also repeatedly targeted the Ontario Liberal party, which is set to elect its new leader on March 7. Former transportation minister Steven Del Duca is widely expected to win the contest and lead the party into the next election, a little more than two years away.

“My friends, the 2022 campaign starts today, starts now,” Mr. Ford told the crowd.

“The people we’re up against, they’re the same ones that ran this province into the ground.”

In his remarks, Mr. Ford specifically mentioned a riding in southwestern Ontario currently held by the provincial NDP as an example an area the PCs hope to win in the 2022 election.

Mr. Ford said he recently toured the Ford engine plant in Essex, a riding that switched from NDP to Conservative in last October’s federal election.

“I met with the workers – hard-working people, folks who don’t always toe the union line,” Mr. Ford said.

“I’m telling you. They’re looking for any excuse, any reason to vote PC in the next election.”

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Mr. Ford’s pro-business speech focused on the province’s job gains as well as the government’s focus on increasing the number of people employed in skilled trades, infrastructure spending and speeding up transit projects.

Mr. Ford repeated his oft-cited attacks on the previous Liberal governments of Kathleen Wynne and Dalton McGuinty, saying Ontario “inherited 15 years of Liberal scandals, mismanagement, and waste.”

“As my brother Rob used to say, the gravy train at Queen's Park – it’s done, it’s gone,” he said of his late brother, former Toronto mayor Rob Ford.

Mr. Ford also returned to his pledge from the 2018 election platform to allow beer and wine in corner stores, “like you can anywhere else in the world, except here in Ontario,” despite the fact that closed-door negotiations with the beer industry appear to have made little headway.

The Premier’s speech to the convention was the only public event at the two-day conference, which limited media access to a few hours on Saturday. The Premier’s office apologized to CBC reporter Mike Crawley on Friday after a security guard at the conference centre blocked his camera while he was live on television, saying the PC party did not condone it.

At the labour protest outside of the convention on Saturday, Ontario Federation of Labour President Patty Coates told a large crowd of teachers, health-care workers and autism advocates that Mr. Ford has to “change course” over the next two years before the 2022 provincial election.

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“They need to have policies that are good for people in Ontario,” Ms. Coates told the audience, many holding handmade signs denouncing Mr. Ford and Mr. Lecce. “If Conservatives don’t listen to us ... we will shut this province down.”

Ms. Coates called for the repeal of Bill 124, which caps public-sector salary increases at 1 per cent, a major point of contention in stalled education talks with four teachers’ unions.

PC House Leader Paul Calandra told reporters at the convention that the government is willing to listen all opinions, but denounced a vulgar sign seen at the protest that targeted MPP Sam Oosterhoff.

“I don’t remember the last political conference that I’ve been to that didn’t feature some form of protest,” he said.

He said the limited media access was due to internal party discussions that focused on the next election platform.

“Our grassroots members would like to have that opportunity to have those discussions in private,” Mr. Calandra said. “We’ll be very excited when the next election campaign comes around to share what we accomplished here.”

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