Rachel Bendayan’s Moroccan-born father warned her against getting involved in politics.
“He told me that it was dangerous, ugly, divisive,” Bendayan admitted to her cheering supporters after handily winning the Feb. 25 byelection in Outremont, Que., recapturing the riding for the Liberals from the NDP, which held it for 12 years. “But I said, ‘No, here it’s open and beautiful and we can make it better.”
Preliminary results give her 40.4 per cent of the vote, with the NDP’s Julia Sanchez, who ran a vigorous campaign, trailing at 26.1 per cent. The Green party, represented by Daniel Green, came in at a fairly strong third place, ahead of the Conservative, Bloc Québécois and People’s Party of Canada contenders. The turnout was just over 21 per cent, inclement weather perhaps being a factor.
Bendayan now becomes the first Sephardic woman ever elected as a member of Parliament.
Former MP Tom Mulcair, who was first elected in a 2007 byelection that saw the NDP get its first real breakthrough in Quebec, stepped down last August, paving the way for the byelection.
Outremont, a sprawling riding encompassing the Montreal borough of Outremont and parts of the Côte-des-Neiges, Mile End and other neighbouring districts, is very diverse both culturally and socio-economically, with a significant Jewish, notably Hasidic, population.
The supporters waiting in a Park Avenue bar for the results to come in after the polls closed reflected that mosaic, as well as a wide age range. Several Hasidic men were present and, confident she would win, they brought a cake for her, inscribed with the words “Mazel Tov” in Hebrew.
Bendayan’s father, a professor in the faculty of medicine at the Université de Montréal, had been politically involved as a young person in Morocco, where he helped fearful people leave the country.
Bendayan mother was just a year old when her family fled Morocco for Montreal. Politics was a frequent topic around the dinner table when Bendayan, 38, was growing up. But it was not portrayed as a desirable career, so she became a lawyer.
Yet Bendayan was bitten by the political bug early and became active in the federal Liberal party while she was a student. She moved up the ranks to the party’s executive.
“Imagine my father’s reaction when I told him I was leaving my law firm to run for office,” she said. This comment prompted someone in the packed crowd to shout, “Best thing you ever did!”
Bendayan took a leave from the law firm Norton Rose Fulbright, where she had specialized in international arbitration, in 2014, to gear up for a run in Outremont in the 2015 federal election.
She has helped our community over the years on important issues.
– Mayer Feig
Bendayan was soundly defeated by Mulcair, but did narrow the spread between the Liberals and the NDP. Outremont had been held by the Liberals since it was created in the 1930s, except for one term during former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative government.
Bendayan remained present in the riding in the years following the federal election, during which time she worked as chief of staff to Government House Leader Bardish Chagger, who was also the minister of small business and tourism at the time. She and her husband Daniel Hofmann also had their first child.
She faced a challenger for the Liberal nomination for this byelection: Concordia University professor Kim Manning, whom she defeated in December.
Bendayan worked hard for the prize, boasting of knocking on 30,000 doors during this mid-winter campaign. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau joined her for a day.
She has emphasized her roots in the riding, saying that she was born and grew up in Côte-des-Neiges and lives in Outremont now. Bendayan presents herself as a unifier of people, someone who champions “positive politics.”
In her victory speech, she deplored “vitriol in political discourse,” and those who would “build walls to keep people out.” Her supporters responded by chanting, “We come together.” More pointedly, she criticized those who “share the stage with white nationalists and exploit people’s fears.”
Jonathan Kalles, who volunteered for Bendayan’s campaign, told The CJN that he believes she was alluding to a recent controversial pro-pipeline protest on Parliament Hill, at which some conservative politicians spoke.
Bendayan lauded the Liberal government’s action on climate change, specifically having “put a price on pollution, despite fierce opposition.”
Mayer Feig, a Hasidic community activist, said the community’s support for Bendayan is “very simple: she has helped our community over the years on important issues, such as immigration and support for families, and has gained our trust.”
Imagine my father’s reaction when I told him I was leaving my law firm to run for office.
– Rachel Bendayan
Three cabinet ministers from Quebec were present to congratulate her: Justice Minister David Lametti, Tourism Minister Mélanie Joly and Infrastructure Minister François-Philippe Champagn.
Bendayan expressed gratitude to her husband for relieving her doubt about whether she could be both an MP and the mother of an infant.
“We looked at our baby and I turned to Daniel and asked, ‘Can we make this work? Can I continue to follow my dream?’ And he said, ‘Yes, and she will look at you and follow her dream someday.’ ”