MONTREAL — The almost quarter-century tradition of an observant Jew sitting on Montreal city council has been preserved with the election of political newcomer Lionel Perez.
Perez is a kippah-wearing, dot-com entrepreneur of Sephardi origin who identifies with the “yeshiva” community living in the de Vimy Avenue area.
He was elected in the Darlington district of the Côte des Neiges-Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough in the Nov. 1 election as a member of Mayor Gérald Tremblay’s Union Montréal team, taking the seat held by Saulie Zajdel.
Zajdel, 54, who comes from the Lubavitch community, retired after 23 years on city council.
The 39-year-old Perez garnered 43 per cent of the vote, handily defeating his nearest rival, Kamalathevi Jegatheeswaran of Louise Harel’s Vision Montréal.
The ethnically and economically diverse district, which stretches from de Vimy to Victoria Avenue at the west, and to Jean Talon Street at the north and Côte Ste. Catherine Road to the south, has a significant Jewish population.
Perez says that while it’s clear he had strong support from the Jewish community, he carried the great majority of the district’s 67 polls. The turnout was 32 per cent, below the city-wide figure of just under 40 per cent.
Perez, who is fluently bilingual and at home in both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi worlds, was born in Montreal to parents who immigrated from Morocco in 1968. He grew up in Côte des Neiges and attended Jewish People’s and Peretz Schools and Herzliah High School (St. Laurent.)
He describes his family as having been “traditionally observant” but he moved to a more religious lifestyle as an adult.
After receiving a BA in political science at Concordia University, he went to Osgoode Hall Law School at Toronto’s York University for his common law degree and returned to the Université de Montréal for a second one in civil law.
He practised law with a technology law firm for some years before going into business for himself, co-founding the Internet company CorporationCentre.ca in 2001. It offers online services to small businesses and now employs about 12 people. He remains its president and CEO.
He married Felicia Mayoff in 1995 and has lived in the de Vimy area since then. They have four children, aged three to 12.
Perez has been involved in numerous Jewish community organizations, including the Communauté sépharade unifiée du Québec, Jewish Family Services (before it merged into Agence Ometz) and the Mada Community Centre, a soup kitchen and food bank under Chabad auspices. He is currently president of a small neighbourhood synagogue, Tiferet Israel, and is on the board of Yeshiva Gedola Merkaz Hatorah.
“I have never been directly involved with politics, but I have always been interested in the political process,” he said.
“I was approached by Saulie, who I would call an acquaintance, not a friend. The party was looking for a successor, and I was one of a few people who were asked.
“I definitely had the support of the Jewish community, but if that was my sole support, it wouldn’t have been enough to win. I did a lot of door to door [campaigning].”
The issues did not appear to split along ethnic lines, he said. “Most electors were concerned with local services. Road safety and how to reduce speed on residential streets stood out… The Jewish population’s concerns were pretty much the same as everyone else’s.”
Côte des Neiges-NDG remains strongly Union Montréal, with four of its five districts choosing the party’s candidates.
Certainly, among Jewish and many other non-francophone voters, former Parti Québécois minister Harel, the new opposition leader, found little favour. Her hard-line separatism and difficulty speaking English did not play well, he said.
While Perez didn’t mention it, Harel’s support over the years for the Palestinian cause has also been a concern to many in the Jewish community in general.
An issue that’s important to Perez is trying to get people more interested in municipal politics.
“The municipal level of government is the most accessible. Every single month, you get to ask questions of your elected officials or voice your concerns. You can interact directly and frequently, which is something you can’t do at the provincial and federal levels. Yet, engagement in city affairs rates much lower,” he said. “I want to create stronger ties between citizens and local business [and city hall].”
With his background in information technology, Perez would like to develop better online communications and services.
“Saulie did an incredible job for 23 years representing all of the residents to the best of his ability, while particularly looking out for the interests of the Jewish community in Darlington and beyond. That’s a role I hope to fulfil to the extent needed,” he said.
Zajdel has also shown that being an Orthodox Jew and a Montreal politician is possible. Zajdel was a member of the executive committee under previous mayor Pierre Bourque for seven years.
From my discussions with Saulie, there seems to be no impediment. There might be some missed meetings or affairs on Shabbat or holidays, but there’s always a way to make up for that,” he said.
Zajdel said Union Montréal, and especially borough mayor Michael Appelbaum, wanted a member of the Jewish community to run in Darlington, and the area’s community leaders were consulted.
“[Perez] is a lawyer, he’s perfectly bilingual, lives in the community and knows the local issues. It was felt he would be a good fit, and we encouraged him to consider it… but to say I groomed him as my successor would not be correct,” Zajdel said.
Zajdel said he quit because 23 years and six terms was enough. “Most of that time I’ve worked two jobs, and now I’m the full-time director of the Jewish Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation. It was getting to be a bit of a strain family-wise. It was time to throw in the towel.”
Elsewhere, the chassidic communities in the Outremont borough are viewing with concern the election of independent candidate Céline Forget. Forget, who was a councillor when Outremont was a city from 1999-2002, has had clashes with the chassidic communities over alleged violations of bylaws going back some 15 years.
Relations reached a low point two years ago, when a chassidic community member brought a charge of armed assault against her, which was eventually dropped.
Forget’s Joseph Beaubien district recorded the highest turnout in the Montreal election, with 58 per cent.