MONTREAL — In one of the most-watched races in the country, particularly for the Jewish community, Mount Royal was the riding the Conservatives had pinned their hopes on for making a breakthrough in Montreal.
But in the end, it wasn’t even close.
Liberal Anthony Housefather decisively defeated Conservative Robert Libman maintaining a 75-history of Liberal hegemony in Mount Royal, the riding held by outgoing MP Irwin Cotler.
The other big story of the night was the strong showing Liberal Rachel Bendayan against New Democratic leader Tom Mulcair in Outremont.
At just after 11 p.m. with half of the vote in his favour, Housefather delivered his victory speech to the jubiliant crowd gathered at his Van Horne Avenue campaign office.
“Everyone tells me I have very large footsteps to follow: Pierre Trudeau, Sheila Finestone and Irwin Cotler for the past 16 years,” said Housefather, referring to the last three MPs for Mount Royal. “I feel very lucky that Irwin will be around to advise me in the coming years.”
Housefather, 45, mayor of Côte St. Luc for the past 10 years and a corporate lawyer, vowed to represent every constituent in this culturally diverse riding. With Jewish voters representing about one-third of the population, the remainder is made up of a wide spectrum of ethnic and religious groups – many of whom clearly backed Housefather.
“I have to represent all people in Mount Royal, and stand up for their rights as Canadians and, of course, human rights across the world… I hope to fulfil your faith in me, and I promise to work hard every single day to do just that.”
Early returns indicated that Conservative took a majority of the polls in Côte St. Luc and Hampstead, where the Jewish population is concentrated, while the Liberals were leading by a wide margin elsewhere, in Côte des Neiges and Town of Mount Royal.
According to Elections Canada, the final tally was Housefather 50 per cent (more than 24,000 votes), Libman 38 per cent (more than 18,000 votes), and the NDP’s Mario Jacinto Rimbao eight per cent. Twenty per cent of ballots were cast in advance polls. Turnout was about 70 per cent.
“Eighteen thousand votes was the magic number we thought we needed to win – that’s more than 2,000 votes than Irwin Cotler got when he won four years ago,” said Libman. “Certainly, we had strong support in the Jewish community, but the red tide swept the rest of the riding, where the Trudeau name still has magic.”
Libman added that, despite what some Liberal supporters claim, he did not take any personal shots at Cotler nor imply that he supported Harper, but simply quoted him and cited his record on where he, Cotler, disagreed with his leader, Trudeau, especially on combatting ISIS and terrorism.
Libman wished Housefather well, but said, “We will be watching closely where Trudeau will lead the country in foreign affairs… I hope we are wrong. Time will tell.”
Although the Conservatives – including Stephen Harper himself, who launched his campaign there on Aug. 2 –fought hard for Mount Royal, the Liberals were consistently ahead in the polls.
Cotler told The CJN he believes Housefather clinched it for four main reasons: “the rising boat effect,” in other words, all Liberals benefited from leader Justin Trudeau’s soaring popularity; the “antipathy” toward Harper, which he believes was strong, at least outside Côte St. Luc and Hampstead; the drop in NDP support, which was 18 per cent in the 2011 election; and Housefather was an “excellent” candidate.
He also said Libman’s aggressive style was counterproductive. “I think people are tired of negative campaigning,” said Cotler, who won Mount Royal in 2011 with a 42 per cent plurality when the turnout was 57 per cent. It appeared to be higher this time.
Libman, 54, an architect by profession and former Côte St. Luc mayor and Equality Party member of the Quebec National Assembly, tried to make this a contest of who supports Israel more and who is tougher on terrorism.
He went increasingly on the attack as the campaign drew to a close. In his advertising in the final days of the campaign, he attacked Housefather for continuing to take his mayor’s salary, saying Mount Royal residents deserve an MP with “integrity.” He also called Housefather “a partner” of Liberal candidates who are “vocal critics of Israel,” namely, Omar Alghraba in Mississauga, a former MP and past president of the Canadian Arab Federation who was elected Oct. 19 in Mississauga Centre, and retired general Andrew Leslie, who won in the Ottawa-area riding of Orléans.
Earlier, Libman attempted to demonstrate that Cotler was in line with the Harper government on Canada’s participation in the military mission against the Islamic State and on foreign policy generally, something Cotler vigorously refuted.
This CJN reporter received a hostile reception at Libman’s campaign office a couple of hours before the polls closed. Mount Royal Conservative Association president Jocelyn Allard physically pushed the reporter out, saying the office was a private place and that the reporter was not invited, and he didn’t allow the reporter to speak to Libman.
Libman phoned an hour later to apologize, saying “the manner in which [Allard] spoke to you was completely unacceptable.”
In Outremont, an upbeat Bendayan conceded defeat to her campaign team crammed into her Park Avenue headquarters at 12:15 a.m., when she was trailing Mulcair with 33 per cent of the vote to his 42 per cent.
“This is very emotional for me, but not because of the numbers,” said the 35-year-old lawyer. “Nobody thought 78 days ago that we had a chance. We gave him [Mulcair] a run for his money.
“People told me on the street today that they are excited by the vote, that it gave them a message of hope, for a better government.”
Defeated Outremont Liberal candidate Rachel Bendayan addresses her troops as volunteer Felix von Geyer looks on. JANICE ARNOLD PHOTO
Bendayan vowed that she remains “there for the party,” an apparent allusion to the possibility that Mulcair, having led the NDP back to third-party status, will resign. Polls showed her rapidly catching up and even surpassing the NDP leader in the last week of the campaign, and she was leading in the earliest returns.
Bendayan, who is Sephardi and the daughter of immigrants from Morocco, has been active with the Liberals for a dozen years and served on its national executive.
She has been one of the hardest-working candidates, unofficially launching her campaign more than 1-1/2 years ago and, since January when she took a leave of absence from her law firm, stumping full out.
She said she knocked on more than 10,000 doors in Outremont, a sprawling riding that extends beyond the borough of that name into Côte des Neiges, Mile End, Park Extension, Rosemont-La Petite Patrie and even downtown.
Mulcair, who has held the riding since 2007, won with 55 per cent of the vote. Previously, Outremont had been Liberal since 1935, except during the Mulroney Progressive Conservative years from 1988 to 1993.
Forty-two per cent of residents have French as a mother tongue, and it is home to a many different cultural communities.
One of the most significant are the Chassidim. One of its leaders and a veteran political observer, Alex Werzberger, said he believed the great majority of Chassidim voted Liberal, with a few staying loyal to the Conservatives. The NDP, he said, never enjoyed support in the community.
That switch to the Liberals owes much to Bendayan’s determined outreach over a long period. “She’s very presentable. She did a lot of legwork, [and] eventually she cracked through the ice,” he said.
Two other Sephardi women candidates were defeated: Conservative Valérie Assouline in Pierrefonds-Dollard finished a distant second on the West Island, where the NDP incumbent Lysane Blanchette Lamothe was ousted by Liberal Frank Baylis.
Pascale Déry, a former French-language TV journalist considered a star candidate by the Conservatives, finished fourth in semi-rural Drummond, northeast of Montreal. She had unsuccessfully challenged Libman for the Conservative nomination in Mount Royal.
The wariness about Trudeau and the Liberals on Israel is still prevalent among some Jewish Montrealers. On election day, The CJN was emailed by Edmond Silber a video entitled “The Truth About Justin Trudeau and the Liberals.” It concludes “Justin Trudeau is dangerous.”
It implies that the Liberal leader is sympathetic to Islamic radicals, showing him speaking at an Islamic conference in 2012, allegedly funded by IFRAN, a group linked to Hamas, and praying at a Montreal mosque that year that the video alleges is suspected of being a site for Al Qaida recruitment. It also goes after his brother, Alexandre Trudeau, a documentary filmmaker, for the supposed bias against Israel.
On the other hand, the pro-Palestinian Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) is not very pleased with the Liberals.
While it is not surprising the Montreal-based lobby group gave the Conservatives an F on Middle East issues in its election guide, it awarded the Liberals a barely passing C minus. The NDP received a B, the Bloc Québécois a B plus and the Green Party a B. On specific issues, the CJPME is most disappointed with the Liberals’ response to the “wars on Gaza” in 2012 and 2014, giving them a F. It also hands out a D minus on their attitude to the Israel boycott campaign.