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Justin Trudeau Meets Privately With 'Very Tough' Canadian Labour Congress

The meeting came after 10 years of “complete hostility” from Stephen Harper’s Tory government, said the head of the CLC.
Blair Gable

Marking what both hope is a new turn in Ottawa’s relationship with organized labour, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the Canadian Labour Congress met on Tuesday — the first time in more than 50 years a sitting prime minister had spoken to the union group’s leaders.

The meeting, held six days after Trudeau was sworn in as Canada’s 23rd prime minister, took place behind closed doors at the request of his office. CLC president Hassan Yussuff explained that some of his colleagues “can be very tough at times.”

The event was private so that a “full and frank discussion” could be had, Trudeau spokeswoman Kate Purchase said. Reporters were asked to leave and escorted out. Purchase said that over the course of his mandate, Trudeau would meet with a variety of stakeholders and that “not all” would be open to media.

The CLC, which counts 3.3 million members, is closely tied with the New Democrats. During the election, CLC economist Angella MacEwen served as an external evaluator for the fiscal costing of the party’s campaign promises. Thousands of union members volunteered on NDP candidates’ campaigns.

“There is no question that a lot of our members and some in the leadership support the NDP … that’s the reality of who we are,” Yussuff told The Huffington Post Canada. “But equally so, elections come and go, and the broader question is now that the election is over, how do we work with this government and have a respectful relationship?”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke to about 100 CLC leaders on Tuesday. (Blair Gable)

One reason no prime minister had addressed the group in decades, Yussuff suggested, was that few, if any, had been invited. Progressive Conservative John Diefenbaker was the last prime minister to address the CLC’s convention — in 1958.

After 10 years of “complete hostility” from Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, Yussuff said he was determined to establish a more constructive relationship with Trudeau.

He told the prime minister that while many of the approximately 100 CLC leaders in the room at the Shaw Centre hadn’t voted for him, many hadn’t voted for Yussuff either. “So don’t feel bad,” the CLC president told Trudeau. “He had a laugh.”

During the 40-minute chat, Yussuff said union leaders peppered the prime minister with questions about the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) and veterans issues. They also reiterated their desire to see an inquiry called into the country’s indigenous women and girls who have vanished or been killed.

Repeated TPP promise

Many union members are concerned about the TPP’s potential effect on the Canadian auto sector, intellectual property rules that could stifle domestic firms’ growth and the price of pharmaceuticals.

Over the weekend, Blackberry co-founder Jim Balsillie warned that signing the TPP could cost the Canadian economy billions of dollars.

"I think our trade negotiators have profoundly failed Canadians and our future innovators. I really lament it,” he told The Canadian Press.

Trudeau did not make any commitment to renegotiate the deal, but he repeated a promise to give the TPP a full debate in Parliament, a study in committee, and a vote in the House of Commons, Yussuff said.

During the election campaign, the Liberals said there would not be a free vote on the trade deal — so if Trudeau’s cabinet decides the TPP is on the whole advantageous for Canada, its passage is essentially assured.

Fred Cromer, president of Bombardier, tours the new CS100 jet in Toronto in October. (Photo: Todd Korol/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Trudeau was also asked whether his government would follow Quebec’s example and provide Bombardier with $1-billion (U.S.) in funding to help the company get its troubled C Series jets off the ground.

According to remarks released by the Prime Minister’s Office, Trudeau said the federal government would make a decision based on the “best interest of Canadians, writ large.”

There has to be a strong business case,” Trudeau told the group, adding pure “emotion, or politics, or symbols” would not guide the outcome.

Unifor, which represents 4,721 Bombardier employees, has been making the case that Ottawa needs to support the Quebec company’s effort to enter the commercial jet market in order to save local jobs.

Finance Minister Bill Morneau told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the cabinet has not yet discussed investing in Bombardier’s C Series. He was unable to give a timeline for a potential decision.

CLC president Hassan Yussuff said the meeting with the prime minister was a positive one.

Yussuff said he was encouraged by the meeting with Trudeau.

“Everybody who left the room was delighted that he came, and there was a strong sense that he was sincere in the things that he was talking about.”

Harper never met with Yussuff, who was elected in May 2014. “I think the [former] prime minister was more interested in how much more damage he could do to the labour movement, or how much he could do to ensure the labour movement wouldn’t exist in this country,” Yussuff told HuffPost about his relationship with the Tories. “It was absolute hostility.”

“It’s early days. Strong commitments are made, and time will tell,” he said about CLC’s new relationship with Trudeau’s government. There are several challenging issues on the horizon, not the least of which is collective bargaining with the public sector, he added.

“People are waiting to see how they are going to deal with those issues.”

For now, both groups are supporting each other. Trudeau reiterated his election promise to repeal anti-labour laws, bills known as C-377, which places onerous financial reporting requirements on unions, and C-525, which makes it harder to form a union and easier to decertify one.

And the CLC pledged that its members would help with the resettling of 25,000 Syrian refugee before year’s end — another Liberal campaign promise. The CLC donated $200,000 to the Canadian Council for Refugees on Tuesday to help with refugee settlement.

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