MONTREAL — When Robert Libman made known his intention to seek the Conservative nomination in Mount Royal in the summer of 2014 he did so with the conviction that Jewish voters are so grateful to Stephen Harper that their support would be enough wrest the riding from the Liberals after 75 years.
He believed Harper and his government’s unwavering backing of Israel and strong stand against anti-Semitism and terrorism since 2006 would be enough to bridge the 2,200-vote gap between the Liberals and the Tories in Mount Royal in the 2011 federal election.
Analyses of the polls that year and anecdotal evidence indicated that a majority of Jews, historically solidly Liberal, voted Conservative. Liberal Irwin Cotler’s once 90 per cent-plus ballot share declined to less than 42 per cent.
With the highly respected Cotler exiting politics after 16 years, it has been widely thought that even more Jews would switch to the Tories this time around.
And Libman is a strong candidate. Older voters especially remember him as the 20-something upstart who founded the English-rights protest Equality Party and led it to four seats in the National Assembly in 1989. He upset the Liberals in D’Arcy McGee, the “Jewish” provincial riding that had always been Liberal.
He is a former Côte St. Luc mayor (as well as Hampstead and Montreal West during the merger) and was a member of Montreal’s executive committee with expertise in urban planning.
The Conservative party has made clear that it believes it can make a breakthrough in Mount Royal (it currently holds five Quebec seats, none in the Montreal area.) Harper’s first stop on the very day the writ was dropped on Aug. 2 was at the YM-YWHA, in Mount Royal.
During the High Holidays, large Conservative posters wishing Jews a Shanah Tovah were put up near 10 synagogues. They bore a photo of Harper at the Western Wall and quoted the prime minister from his 2014 address to the Knesset: “Through fire and water, Canada will stand with Israel.”
Despite an aggressive campaign, Libman, 54, is not coasting to victory. Liberal candidate Anthony Housefather, who launched his nomination bid back in March 2014, has been a tenacious opponent.
The poll-aggregating site ThreeHundredEight.com projected on Oct. 7 an 81 per cent likelihood that the Liberals will win Mount Royal. The Liberals are averaging 51 per cent support, the Conservatives 35.5 per cent and the New Democrats, whose candidate is Mario Jacinto Rimbao, 9.7 per cent among decided voters.
Rimbao, who is prominent in the politically active Filipino community, remains the wild card depending on how many votes he can pull away from the leading contenders, who both are making special pitches to that community.
Rimbao also has his Jewish supporters, notably the NDP riding association president Jimmy Gutman, who says he is drawn to the party for ideological reasons. Harper’s support for Israel is more about backing the policies of Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, than about genuine concern for what’s best for the people of Israel, in his opinion.
Libman refuted a Mainstreet/Postmedia poll published Sept. 24 showing Housefather had a 15-point lead over him. Libman claims the poll was a “sham” because Mainstreet is run by Quito Maggi, a Liberal party organizer and former Liberal party president.
“It’s a bogus poll and contradicted by our hard numbers, which show a very close race in Mount Royal,” he emailed The CJN. “The Liberals did the same thing in the last election where they targeted specific sectors of the riding only where their support was strong… They are spinning numbers to create a false impression.”
While Libman has emphasized that only the Conservatives assure “unequivocal” support for Israel, Housefather recognized from the outset that Mount Royal is culturally diverse. About a third of its electors are Jewish, but their traditionally higher than average turnout may give that figure extra weight.
Housefather, 45, the current mayor of Côte St. Luc, has cultivated support among the many different ethnic groups in the riding, many of them visible minorities – which traditionally have been Liberal.
He has maintained repeatedly that his party and leader Justin Trudeau are as supportive of Israel as the Conservatives, and that he, personally, takes a back seat to no one on the Jewish state. But Housefather also recognizes that this issue is not uppermost in the minds of most Mount Royal residents and that even many Jews do not want to be treated as a one-issue constituency.
On Sept. 24, Stephen Bronfman, a powerful name in the Jewish community, affirmed at a Housefather event: “I brought Justin [Trudeau] with me to Israel seven years ago. Israel has his support and understanding.”
Housefather responded: “For anyone who questions the Liberal party’s commitment to and support for the State of Israel, the Bronfman name stands tall. The Bronfman family has played a leadership role in the Canadian Jewish community for generations.”
Libman asks: “How many times does the Jewish community want to be fooled by the Liberal party double-speak when it comes to Israel?… Justin Trudeau would have us believe the Liberal party [is] the same [as Harper], when all the evidence says otherwise.”
Housefather has also received high-profile endorsements from local politicians, including longtime Snowdon city councillor Marvin Rotrand, borough mayor Russell Copeman, Town of Mount Royal Mayor Philippe Roy and Montreal West Mayor Beny Masella, among others.
Trudeau, whose father, Pierre Elliott, represented Mount Royal from 1965-84, had not at time of writing visited the riding.
There have been reports of over-zealous Libman volunteers trying to shame Jews into voting Conservative, which Libman has apologized for.
Declared Liberal supporter Mitchell Kujavsky says he resents the Conservatives dealing in the “politics of fear” on Israel. “The sheer amount of misinformation and false rumours circulating through emails and word-of-mouth has been alarming… From stolen and defaced signs to door-to-door volunteers accusing their fellow Jews of being anti-Semites, it has been nothing short of concerning and, at times, disturbing.”
Libman campaign worker Thelma Shapiro said, “Both sides have pointed fingers at each other about misbehaviour, with no conclusive proof on either side.”
During the campaign’s final days, Shapiro said, the Mount Royal Tories are avoiding going “negative” and attacking opponents.
“The parties’ position on Israel has been in the spotlight, but we are stepping back and looking at the total picture, the many issues of concern in the riding.”
Libman and Housefather have similar backgrounds. Both are graduates of Herzliah High School, got their start in public life at an early age, were leaders in the anglophone rights movement (Housefather was president of Alliance Quebec), were municipal officials, and are at ease before crowds.
They have different personas, though. While both are thoughtful and articulate, Libman projects a sober, formal image next to Housefather’s sunny congeniality.
Just how divided Jewish voters in Mount Royal remain, even within families, is epitomized by Dida Berku and Jack Kincler, a couple married for 36 years. He is a staunch Conservative; she is for the Liberals.
“I love Anthony, he’s a wonderful person… Whoever is elected is not going to make a huge difference at the local level, our lives are not going to change much,” said Kincler, a businessman and chair of the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research [which takes no side in the election.]
“The major issue for me is Israel, and Harper is definitely been the best friend for Israel. We owe him a debt of gratitude.”
Berku, a Côte St. Luc city councillor and lawyer, said, “I think Canada has a good record on Israel, whether it has been a Liberal or Conservative government.”
While all three major candidates have merit, she said Housefather is “an excellent leader, he builds consensus, he’s very responsive to the needs of his constituents.”
In other ridings, Jews may not have the demographic weight to make a difference in the outcome.
Two female Sephardi candidates, however, appear to be having an impact. Liberal Rachel Bendayan in Outremont was within less than 10 points of NDP Leader Tom Mulcair (35.1 vs 44.2 per cent) and Conservative Valérie Assouline in Pierrefonds-Dollard was slightly ahead of the NDP incumbent Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, but well behind Liberal Frank Baylis at close to 45 per cent, according to ThreeHundredEight.com on Oct. 7. A third Sephardi woman, Conservative Pascale Déry, is running in semi-rural Drummond, northeast of Montreal.