WINNIPEG — Judy Wasylycia-Leis, long one of Israel’s and Canadian Jewry’s best friends in the House of Commons, has resigned her seat to run for mayor of Winnipeg in the upcoming election in October.
Judy Wasylycia-Leis [Myron Love photo]
The former NDP MP for Winnipeg North has decided to challenge two-time incumbent Sam Katz, the city’s Jewish mayor, for the top job in what should be an exciting race between two high-profile candidates.
In an interview with The CJN, Wasylycia-Leis noted that she was sitting at 36 per cent in a poll taken in March, before she officially declared her intention to contest the mayoral election. In the same poll, Katz was the choice of 51 per cent of respondents, while three other potential candidates divided the remaining support.
But now, with the three other candidates having removed themselves from consideration in deference to Wasylycia-Leis, she estimates that she’s likely around 40 per cent in the polls.
“I think I’m within striking distance,” she said. “I’m putting together a strong team [headed by Liberal senator and former Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs]. One of my challenges is to get people excited enough to come out and vote.”
(The turnout in civic elections here has historically been low, except when there has been a compelling mayoral race.)
Wasylycia-Leis, 58, is originally from Kitchener, Ont., and comes from a Ukrainian and Dutch background. “I grew up with a sense of social justice and community activism,” she said.
After graduating from the University of Waterloo, she headed to Ottawa, where she worked as a policy planning consultant for the New Democratic Party. She later served as executive assistant to party leader Ed Broadbent and as women’s organizer for the federal NDP. She ran unsuccessfully in three attempts to be elected to Ontario legislature while in Ottawa.
She moved to Manitoba in 1982 to work as executive assistant to newly elected NDP Premier Howard Pawley and later co-ordinated the Women’s Directorate in the Manitoba government.
It was after settling in north Winnipeg that she first became exposed to members of the Jewish community, both as neighbours and through her work with the NDP. In north Winnipeg, there was traditionally strong support for the NDP from among the Jewish community.
“Through my Jewish friends, I became more aware of Jewish issues and developed a real interest in Israel,” she said.
She was elected to the Manitoba legislature in the 1986 provincial election in the north-end Winnipeg riding of St. John’s and was appointed minister of culture, heritage and recreation with responsibility for the status of women and the Manitoba Lotteries Foundation. In 1988, the Pawley government was defeated on a budget vote and while Wasylycia-Leis held her seat, the NDP dropped to third place in the legislature.
In 1993, she resigned her seat to run federally for the NDP. That was the election in which the Liberals swept the country, reducing the formerly ruling Tories to two seats and the NDP to nine seats.
Wasylycia-Leis also lost, but she spent the next four years doing volunteer work and preparing to run again in the next election. She was elected to Parliament in 1997.
Wasylycia-Leis recalled that her first highlight there was getting a motion passed to have labels placed on all liquor bottles warning pregnant women about the dangers of fetal alcohol syndrome. She regrets that the measure, once passed, was never implemented.
Her second highlight, she said, was having her 2003 motion to introduce a National Holocaust Remembrance Day receive unanimous approval.
While an MP, she visited Israel twice on Canada-Israel Committee missions – most recently coinciding with Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations – and she went to Poland on a Holocaust studies tour under the auspices of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre. She was also a longstanding member of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism.
“I may disagree with some Israeli government actions,” she said, “but I stand squarely behind Israel’s right to exist and to defend itself.”
She said she decided to come back to Winnipeg to run for mayor in response to huge demand. “I think Winnipeg is at a crossroads,” she said. “This city has great potential which hasn’t been realized yet.”
She said she plans to spend the next few weeks meeting with Winnipeg community groups before she starts to unveil her platform for the fall campaign.