WINDSOR, Ont. – Stephen Harper took to a hard-hit automotive city Sunday – home to strongly NDP-held ridings – to announce help for the manufacturing sector.

The Conservatives promised to spend up to $100 million to help manufacturing firms get their projects to market, though the money wouldn’t flow right away. The funds wouldn’t become available until the 2017-18 fiscal year and would be spread over five years.

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The announcement comes days after Statistics Canada reported increased sales for the country’s factories, fuelled by gains in the auto sector, in May, June and July.

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Harper capitalized on that news, saying manufacturing “has made a remarkable transformation … (and) has a bright future in Canada.”

But in a city that consistently has one of the highest rates of unemployment in the country, not all were convinced by Harper’s message.

About two dozen protesters were outside his announcement at Anchor Danly, which bills itself as the largest North American manufacturer of large-engineered die sets used by automotive and automotive parts industries, many holding signs pointing to Windsor’s job losses.

“We had a plant here – GM – that had thousands of workers,” said Randy Emerson, who works at Chrysler.

“It’s gone. Where was he then? Now he comes now at election time to ask for our vote? That’s a lot of nerve in my point of view.”

In his remarks, Harper reminded the partisan crowd of the government’s 2009 auto sector bailout, which he said “saved the economy of Windsor.”

The August unemployment rate in this border city was nine per cent, compared to the national average of seven per cent.

The auto sector has rebounded since the bailouts, but large government incentives to build plants in the U.S. and Mexico, favourable trade agreements between Mexico and other countries and higher labour costs continue to hurt Canada’s chances to win production.

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Emerson lamented the amount of auto production going to Mexico and said, “Free trade kills manufacturing jobs.”

Harper has come under fire for saying during last week’s leaders’ debate that the auto sector may not like the outcome of the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks.

The Conservative government says the TPP is crucial to Canada’s economic future, noting that it would encompass 40 per cent of the world’s combined gross domestic product.

Harper said Sunday that Canada’s automobile sector exports 85 per cent of what it produces and with the TPP negotiations, the country has the opportunity to be part of a trading network involving 800 million customers.

“That can only be good for the auto sector, so we’ll keep it on the table until we get the right deal,” he said.

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The manufacturing technology demonstration fund announced Sunday would go to private companies working with small- and medium-sized businesses, universities or colleges to commercialize a project or idea.

The Conservatives argue the fund should help Canadian companies keep pace in the global market with competitors from Japan, Germany, Korea and the United Kingdom.

The two ridings Harper visited – Windsor-Tecumseh and Windsor West – are ones the Conservatives have never won since they were created.

Both ridings have been held by the NDP for more than a decade and Harper’s visit comes after being hammered by NDP Leader Tom Mulcair for weeks over manufacturing job losses.

Mulcair has often said that during Harper’s tenure as prime minister, Canada has lost 400,000 manufacturing jobs.

The Liberals said Harper’s debate comment shows “he’s given up trying to protect the auto industry.”

©2015The Canadian Press