NIAGARA FALLS, ONT. -- A crowd of labour activists demonstrated outside of the Ontario Progressive Conservative convention on Saturday, introducing the spectre of a union-led general strike to fight cuts to key public services like education and health care.

Protesters waving flags and placards filled the streets outside of a convention centre in Niagara Falls, Ont., where the Tory policy gathering was taking place to begin development of Premier Doug Ford's re-election platform.

The Ontario Federation of Labour organized the event and that group's president said activists must fight to save public services.

"This is their policy conference and we want them to know they need to change course," Patty Coates said. "They need to have policies that are good for people in Ontario. ... We're going to stand together against these cuts."

Coates, and several other speakers at the rally, suggested a co-ordinated effort to push back against government cuts in a general strike is possible.

"If the Conservatives don't listen to us we ... will shut this province down," Coates said.

Sarah Labelle, of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, also said a general strike could be the next move organized labour makes if the Ford government doesn't change course.

"If it takes a general strike down the road, we're not scared," she said.

The protest came a day after thousands of teachers marched around the Ontario legislature to protest stalled contract talks with the government.

The joint walkout by all four major teachers' unions marked the first time since 1997 that educators from all the labour groups were on strike on the same day.

The teachers' unions have said they are pushing back against government attempts to increase class sizes and introduce mandatory online learning courses.

The government has said the key issue in bargaining is compensation, as they offer educators a one per cent raise while the unions ask for a cost of living adjustment closer to two per cent.

The leaders of three teachers' unions attended the rally on Saturday, with the president of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario urging the crowd to stand with educators.

"They're attacking us," Sam Hammond said. "But my friends, make no mistake, you're next. This is a much bigger fight."

NDP legislator Wayne Gates, who represents the riding that includes Niagara Falls, slammed the government for making cuts to the province's classrooms.

"We have the best public education system in the world," he said. "Why the hell would you want to tear that down?"

Later Saturday afternoon, Government House Leader Paul Calandra downplayed the threat of a general strike and said political conventions always attract vocal demonstrations.

"We're always willing to listen to anyone who brings their opinions forward," he said. "I don't remember the last political conference I've been to that didn't feature some form of protest at it."

Most of the convention was closed to the public and media over the weekend. The exception will be a keynote speech from Ford on Saturday night.

Calandra defended the secrecy surrounding the gathering, saying the party wants to keep policy deliberations "within the family."

"As we develop those policies and platforms for the next campaign, that our members, our grassroot members, would like to have that opportunity to have those discussions in private," he said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2020.