Unifor National President Jerry Dias put the major political parties on notice Wednesday that his union believes the preservation of Canada's health-care system is the top issue in the federal election.

And the country's largest private-sector union wants its members to get involved in the fight to preserve it.

Crowd at health-care forum at Oldcastle's Ciociaro Club

Well over 1,000 people attended the event held at the Ciociaro Club on Wednesday morning, many of whom were retired autoworkers and union members. (CBC)

"This has to be the number one issue to be dealt with this in this federal election," Dias said Wednesday morning, addressing a crowd of more than 1,000, which gathered at the Ciociaro Club, near the outskirts of Windsor, Ont.

So many people attended, in fact, that their many minivans and pickup trucks created a small traffic jam outside the venue and led to overflow parking on the club's lawn.

Ken Lewenza, the former president of the Canadian Auto Workers, which is now part of Unifor, was the first to speak at the event.

"This is a hell of a crowd," Lewenza said, when welcoming the many retired autoworkers and union members who filled the hall.

Hard to separate the politics?

Lewenza told the audience that politicians from each party were invited. But when he called on those in attendance to introduce themselves, it appeared that there were no Conservative candidates present.

Ken Lewenza at Ciociaro Club

Ken Lewenza, the former president of the Canadian Auto Workers, is seen speaking at the Ciociaro Club on Wednesday morning. (CBC)

"I do thank you for coming because health care goes beyond party lines," Lewenza said, as local candidates were identified to the crowd. "Health care goes from a commitment that started with Tommy Douglas in Saskatchewan and spread through this country as the most important social program in our country."

Wednesday's event was supposed to be non-partisan. But Dias wore an NDP button on his lapel, and both he and Lewenza gave shout-outs to local New Democrat candidates, without offering similar endorsements to any candidates from other parties. Dias also made mention of campaign pledges from Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau and New Democrat Leader Tom Mulcair.

When questioned about this, Dias said "it's hard to talk about health care without talking about politics."

Choices to consider

Natalie Mehra, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, warned that the provinces stand to lose $36 billion over the next 10 years as a result of proposed changes in how Ottawa funds health care.

In Ontario, Mehra predicted these changes will erode the province's health-care system and cost patients. 

Natalie Mehra

Natalie Mehra, the executive director of the Ontario Health Coalition, says that pending changes to the way Ottawa funds health care will be hurtful to the system and thus to patients. (CBC)

"That's why health-care advocates across the country are up in arms and trying to make health care a key election issue because there really are choices here about what we're going to do and what it means for the future of health care for all Canadians," she said in an interview with CBC News on Wednesday.

Lewenza said Windsor has a special appreciation for what health care means to people, based on what they see happening on the other side of the Detroit River.

"We in Windsor and Essex County understand the difference between universal, accessible health care, paid for by taxpayers' dollars than our colleagues in the United States, which is just a mile away. People [there] lose their homes. They lose their cars. They have to use their credit card to get health care," he said.

Dias called on union members to help ensure that Canada's political parties each pledge to reinvest in the health-care system and renegotiate a health-care accord with the provinces.

The message appeared to be getting through to the crowd.

Norm Maisonneuve, a retired tool-and-die worker who lives in Essex, said he believed that the people at Wednesday's rally will take the message and run with it.

"You'll get a lot of backing and a lot of support from this group here," he said.

Lewenza said this push on health care won't stop with the event in Windsor.

"It's important that people understand that we're going to start the discussion on health care in Windsor and Essex County and we're going to demand that all political parties make health care a priority," he said.

Dias said "this was the first of what's going to be a movement across the country to talk about health care."

A key issue on the doorstep

Several local Liberal and New Democrat candidates who attended the event told CBC News that the people they are meeting on the campaign trail see health care as one of their top concerns.

Frank Schiller, a Liberal candidate who is running in Windsor-Tecumseh, said jobs, the economy and health care were the top issues for voters.

Tracey Ramsey, a New Democrat candidate seeking a seat in the largely rural riding of Essex, agreed.

"I would say healthcare is right up there," Ramsey told CBC News on Wednesday. "It's a tie between healthcare and jobs, to be quite honest."

Audrey Festeryga, a Liberal candidate who is also running in Essex, said the issue is particularly important for older voters.

"I think it's fair to say that seniors are concerned about health care and pensions," she said.

With files from the CBC's Joana Draghici