TORONTO – Thousands of protesters jammed the streets outside the Ontario Liberal leadership convention Saturday afternoon as delegates voted for the party’s next leader and the province’s new premier.

Police officers stood behind a barricade and let delegates in and out of the former Maple Leaf Gardens in downtown Toronto while the crowd of public school teachers, other union members and community groups let loose an avalanche of noise punctuated by whistles and drums.

“What’s disgusting? Union busting!” a street full of protesters bellowed as police looked on.

The bulk of the protesters were public elementary and secondary school teachers, who were joined by other public sector unions, as well as the Canadian Auto Workers and United Steel Workers, among other labour members and community groups.

The demonstration started two hours earlier in a nearby park, where protesters listened to labour leaders and activists condemn the Liberal government’s decision to impose contracts on public school teachers. Speakers decried the move as a violation of workers’ democratic rights, and also railed against budget cutbacks.

Ontario Secondary School Teachers’ Federation president Ken Coran said the next Liberal leader — who will become the province’s new premier — must negotiate contracts with public elementary and secondary teachers.

He had one key message for the next premier when it comes to dealing with unions.

“The lesson is simple. Be fair. Be respectful. And be democratic.”

Protesters, many of whom arrived in a fleet of chartered buses, then began a brief march to the nearby convention site.

Some delegates smiled as they walked by the spirited wall of protesters. Others were met with loud boos.

One supporter of candidate Kathleen Wynne leaned over the barricade to hand an apple, coffee and bag of chips to an older protester.

Teacher Craig Breen said he had to show his opposition to the imposition of teachers’ contracts.

“People here provide a great service to kids, and the reaction of our government to our fine service is to trample on our rights,” he said.