MONTREAL — If Rachel Bendayan doesn’t slay the giant, it won’t be for lack of trying.
The 35-year-old lawyer has knocked on 10,000 doors to date, she says, in an effort to return Outremont to the Liberal stronghold it was for decades.
That giant is New Democratic Party leader Tom Mulcair, who has represented the riding since a 2007 byelection and garnered 55 per cent of the vote in 2011, leaving the-then Liberal hopeful trailing at 21 per cent.
Bendayan is unbowed. The overriding impression she has from showing up at people’s homes in this sprawling, culturally and economically diverse riding is that people want change. “The reaction has been fantastic. I’m very encouraged,” she said. “I think it’s really important to hear from the constituents I will represent.”
Bendayan has been unofficially campaigning since her unopposed nomination in March 2014. She opened her office last June, well before the earlier-than-expected Aug. 2 election call, on Park Avenue, near St. Viateur Street, in the heart of a bustling multicultural microcosm.
Since Jan. 1, she’s been on an unpaid sabbatical from law firm Norton Rose Fulbright Canada, where she’s practised commercial litigation and international arbitration since 2007 – a mostly male sphere, she noted.
One of the partners is former Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney. “He is supportive of me as a candidate, and thinks a new generation, fresh blood, new ideas are needed. He loves to hear stories from the hustings.”
One of her mentors, outgoing Mount Royal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, also encouraged her to enter the political arena, believing it’s time for young people to step up.
As well as the upscale borough of the same name, Outremont encompasses parts of Mile End, Côte des Neiges and downtown Montreal. It has a sizable Jewish population, notably several chassidic and other haredi communities. The riding was her home for eight years until the electoral map was redrawn for this election and she and husband Daniel Hofmann found themselves two blocks outside its boundaries. She grew up in Côte des Neiges.
Mulcair has been noticeably absent in the riding, said Bendayan, who would welcome a debate with him, but so far he’s refused.
Despite the challenge, Bendayan said she never considered running anywhere else, although she thought it would be later because she is still building her legal career.
She’s been active in politics since her law student days at McGill University and, over the past 12 years, in federal politics, including serving on the Liberal party’s legal commission and the national board of directors.
She attributes her interest in public life in part to her having been active in the B’nai Brith Youth Organization as a teen – she rose to eastern Canadian president – and, more recently, with the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee, a non-partisan group that urges Jews to be active in politics.
The issues raised by residents in the different parts in the riding are often similar, Bendayan says. The most common concerns are the economy and immigration.
She is trying to do politics differently by being more consultative. A campaign is the time to discuss real issues with voters, she believes. In late August, with Cotler, she organized a “reverse town hall” meeting where she invited representatives of several cultural communities to discuss what’s on their mind regarding immigration.
Among those on the panel were Max Leiberman of the Jewish community and Mazen Houdeib of the Arab community. Both find immigration too long and complicated, and the citizenship exam in Montreal is only offered on Saturdays, a sore point for Chassidim and other Orthodox Jews.
“The Harper government’s immigration policies have led us away from Canada’s basic values of openness and has devalued citizenship,” said Bendayan, whose parents were born in Morocco.
“Wait times are such that thousands of families have no real hope of being reunited. Added fees mean many cannot afford to immigrate. A lack of service and flexibility has meant certain communities have been shut out of the immigration process altogether,” she said.