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Ontario Liberals Debate Sees Leadership Contenders Face Off For Last Time

TORONTO - There was lots of talk among the seven Ontario Liberal leadership candidates about reaching out to teachers during their final debate Wednesday, but very few specifics.

Several of the would-be premiers urged teachers to abandon protests against Bill 115 and resume extracurricular activities while hundreds of angry teachers protested outside the last of five leadership debates before Liberals pick a new leader Jan. 25-26 in Toronto.

"Please stand down," former cabinet minister Sandra Pupatello, who called herself the "poster child" for extracurricular activities.

"It was my student council, it was sports that kept me going to school every day and probably the only reason I graduated from high school, and I don't want any one of our children to miss out on that opportunity."

Gerard Kennedy, a former education minister, also urged teachers to abandon their protests, at least until a new premier is selected later this month.

"It's time to bring back extracurriculars back," he said.

"I've been to visit every picket line that we've seen and they feel a lack of respect and we have to be able to say we're prepared to make changes, to acknowledge when things have gone off the rails."

Eric Hoskins acknowledged the teachers protesting outside the debate at the Old Mill Inn, and said the Liberals needed to restore good relations with teachers.

"We need our teachers on the inside, not on the outside as they are tonight," said Hoskins.

"If the last year has taught us anything it's that process that was put in place, we can't use it again. it didn't work."

Kathleen Wynne said she knows that parents feel the after-class clubs and sports are "not optional," and admitted there were problems negotiating with teachers as the government fought to cut keep down expenses.

"We need a new process; this one failed," said Wynne, also a former education minister.

The teachers protesting outside the debate were joined by unions representing other public sector workers to protest Bill 115, which the government used to impose contracts on school boards and educators.

Union leaders, leading chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, lying Liberals have to go," vowed to defeat the Liberals in the next election for using the legislation, which also imposed a two-year wage freeze on most teachers.

The government wants all public sector workers to take a two-year wage freeze to trim a $14.4 billion deficit, but so far has used the legislation only on teachers.

Premier Dalton McGuinty announced earlier Wednesday that the government would go to the Labour Relations Board to prevent a protest by elementary teachers on Friday.

The debate was the last for the seven men and women hoping to replace McGuinty as premier and Ontario Liberal leader.

The questions suggested by party members via email focused mainly on Toronto issues such as public transit and the city's aging infrastructure.

Former Winnipeg Mayor Glen Murray got the biggest laugh of the night when he appealed for delegate and financial support.

"You want an Ontario government people will be talking about for 50 years, then elect me premier," said Murray, "because I don't have a lot of money. I've tapped out every friend I have. I can barely buy another pamphlet. I need your help. I need your votes badly."

Liberal delegates will be selected this weekend from ridings across the province, with about 2,300 people eligible to vote for the new leader at the convention in Toronto Jan. 25-26.

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