Quebec Jews Rethink Traditional Ties to Province’s Liberal Party

By Sheldon Gordon

Published June 20, 2007, issue of June 22, 2007.
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Montreal - The 90,000-strong Montreal Jewish community, long a dependable source of votes and cash for Quebec’s ruling Liberal Party, is suddenly putting its political allegiance up for grabs.

A dozen of the community’s major political fundraisers, unhappy with Liberal Premier Jean Charest over a host of issues large and small, recently had dinner with Mario Dumont, leader of the opposition Action Démocratique du Quebec and, according to a report in the French-language daily La Presse, discussed financial support for his party.

Dumont acknowledged the meeting, but insisted that political funding had not been discussed. The gathering was hosted by Leo Kolber, a former Liberal senator who for decades was an adviser to the Bronfman family in Montreal and who raised funds for both the federal and provincial Liberals. Kolber told the Forward he could not comment publicly on the meeting.

Also present was Steven Cummings, president and CEO of the real estate company Maxwell Cummings & Sons Holdings and past president of Federation CJA (the central funding body for Jewish social service agencies in Montreal). Cummings did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“Many Jews who are upset with the Quebec Liberal Party because of things they’ve done, and not done, are looking for an alternative,” said Harold Waller, a political scientist at McGill University. “For the first time in 30 years, there is an alternative on the Quebec scene that is not a separatist party.”

Usually, the Jewish community has voted overwhelmingly for the Quebec Liberal Party in provincial elections, and supplied a disproportionate share of its campaign finance. “For quite a few people, voting Liberal is almost a genetic trait,” said Bill Surkis, a political consultant and formerly B’nai Brith’s Quebec regional director.

This was especially so from the 1970s onward, when the Liberals’ only serious competitor for power in the largely French-speaking province was the secession-minded Parti Québécois, whose plans to take Quebec out of Canada were anathema to almost everyone in the Jewish community.

But in Quebec’s general election March 26, Dumont led his small, inexperienced ADQ party past the PQ into second place in the Quebec Assembly. Charest’s Liberals clung to power with a minority government, but many observers believe that a new election may occur soon, and that the ADQ has the momentum to win it.

While the ADQ is a nationalist party, it is not a secessionist one, so the Jewish community appears ready to consider it, if only to create competition for Jewish votes.

Russell Copeman, one of two Jewish legislators elected by the Liberals, told the Forward that since Dumont is the opposition leader, “it is not inappropriate that organizations and individuals reach out to him.” But he added, “It’s premature to conclude from one meeting that there’s a significant shift in the support that the Liberal Party has enjoyed in the Jewish community.”

As if to underline Copeman’s point, Mel Hoppenheim, who founded La Cité du Cinéma film production studios and is a Liberal donor with close ties to Charest, said, “I’m disappointed with some of the decisions that the Liberal Party has taken, but I’m continuing to support them.”

The provincial Liberals have disappointed the community on several counts. In 2005, the government announced that it would provide full subsidies for Quebec’s 15 Jewish day schools; it then retreated in the face of a massive outcry from the province’s secular, French-speaking majority. (The province still pays 60% of the private schools’ expenses.)

Meanwhile, the fundraisers who dined with Dumont were upset that the government has not given Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital the status of a “university hospital.” Jewish General has been a pet project for Kolber, Cummings and other Jewish philanthropists in Montreal. While it is a teaching hospital affiliated with McGill University, having the official status of “university hospital” would improve its eligibility for research grants from provincial funding bodies.

Charest also offended Quebec Jewry when, in a post-election Cabinet shuffle, he failed to reappoint a Jewish Cabinet minister — breaking what had been a Liberal tradition since the early ’70s. “Members of the community feel the Liberal Party has taken the community for granted,” Waller said.

“I hear that phrase from the Jewish community,” Copeman said, “but it’s much too short-sighted to look at the formation of a Cabinet and make that leap. Despite the events of the last three months, the Quebec Liberal Party has the values that are closest to those of Quebecers of the Jewish faith.”

Nonetheless, Montreal Jews are at least open to hearing what the ADQ stands for, Surkis said. “Essentially, if Mr. Dumont wants to get the Jewish community behind him, he must be seen more in the community.”

Dumont delighted the community when he attended a reception in April in honor of Israel’s Independence Day. (PQ and, to some extent, Liberal politicians have been highly critical of Israel.) But Montreal Jewry was uncomfortable with Dumont’s election campaign comments that public institutions should not “bend over backward” to accommodate the needs of religious minorities.

The issue of what constitutes “reasonable accommodation” of religious and other minorities is a hot-button topic in Quebec, and several recent incidents of allegedly preferential treatment for Orthodox Jews have caused negative coverage of the Quebec Jewish community in the French-language media. The government has appointed a commission to examine the issue.


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