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Birnbaum ready to be Jewish voice in National Assembly

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David Birnbaum

MONTREAL — David Birnbaum has been away from Jewish community affairs for a decade, but he’s ready to assume the mantle of the community’s representative in Quebec City from Lawrence Bergman.

“It’s quite a legacy I’m seeking to follow in… It would be an honour to play the same role. I understand it is a special role,” said Birnbaum, the Liberal candidate in D’Arcy McGee, in an interview.

Bergman, 73, who announced March 7 that he was retiring from politics after 20 years in office, defined his mandate as representing Jewish interests in the National Assembly, in addition to those of the riding’s residents.

Birnbaum said that tradition goes back much further to when Victor Goldbloom was first elected in D’Arcy McGee in 1966, followed by fellow Liberal Herbert Marx. Like Bergman, they were both cabinet ministers.

Birnbaum acknowledges that Robert Libman, the Equality Party leader and later an independent, also served the Jewish community well as D’Arcy McGee MNA.

“I’ve talked with leaders at the federation [CJA] and CIJA [Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs], as well as the mayor of Côte St. Luc [Anthony Housefather],” Birnbaum said. “And I hope to do so again.”

Birnbaum, who will be 58 on April 8, has left his job as executive director of the Quebec English School Boards Association, which he had held since 2004. Before that, he was executive director of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region, for six years, after holding the same position for about 10 years with Alliance Quebec, the now-defunct English rights group.

“I made the decision to jump into this game because I really care about Quebec and my place in it,” he said. “I’m quite worried about the future. The community I hope to represent is deeply uneasy about the future.

“At the same time, we are defiant and proud of what we have all contributed to Quebec and do not want that put at risk.”

Birnbaum, who began his career as a journalist, said he let the Liberals know he wanted to be a candidate, but it was leader Philippe Couillard who asked him to run in D’Arcy McGee, probably the safest Liberal seat in the province, after Bergman decided to step down.

“I wouldn’t have made such a presumption, but I hope that [the choice] is a logical extension of my talent and commitment,” Birnbaum said.

He does not live in the riding, but notes that his late mother lived in Côte St. Luc for more than 30 years, and his previous positions have given him “roots” there.

Birnbaum is married to Hélène Charbonneau, and they have two children: Zoë, 20, and Vincent, 16. He speaks French fluently.

As a resident remarked to him, even “a head of lettuce” running for the Liberals in D’Arcy McGee would get elected, but Birnbaum says he is campaigning actively.

He reminds voters that under new financing rules, party funding is partly based on the turnout the party receives.

More importantly, Birnbaum believes the April 7 election has become “a referendum on whether the country splits up or not,” and the more people vote against the sovereigntist Parti Québécois, the stronger the message will be.

Barring a miracle, Birnbaum will be the sole Jewish MNA in the next government, but he’s not the only Jewish candidate.

On March 7, Premier Pauline Marois introduced three female candidates – two Muslim, one Jewish – as prominent members of religious minorities who defend her government’s charter of Quebec values because of their strong belief in secularism.

In February, the Coalition Avenir Québec (CAQ) announced two candidates who are Jewish, without making any reference to their religion: Noah Sidel and Valérie Assouline.

All are running in solidly Liberal Montreal ridings.

The PQ’s Acadie candidate is Evelyne Abitbol, a journalist by profession, who was press attaché to Lucien Bouchard when he was Bloc Québécois leader and handled government relations and public affairs at Concordia University from 1997 to 2009.

She confirmed to The CJN that she’s running to show support for the charter.

Abitbol said the adoption of Bill 60 is “essential” if Quebec is to combat what she sees as the problem of fundamentalism.

“There are a lot of Jewish people who support the charter, but do not say that, because they do not want to be targeted by the community,” she said.

For some years, she and other secular Muslim, Christian and Jewish women of North African and Middle Eastern origin have been working together to counter fundamentalism in those countries. Abitbol came to Canada with her family from her native Morocco in the 1960s.

“We left Morocco because of fundamentalism,” she said. “We do not want to go back to it in this country.”

These women are trying to offer a different perspective on the charter than that held by most in their communities.

“The charter does not attack rights… It may seem strange to say, but it protects religion,” Abitbol said.

“If we have a neutral country, neutral people working for it, then we have a common ground for everyone.”

Abitbol said she chose Acadie to run in, even though Liberal Christine St. Pierre won it in 2012 by 11,800 votes. The PQ came third. “I chose it because it has a lot of immigrants, and it needs to be explained to them that the charter will protect them,” she said.

Sidel has an equally tough battle in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce, where Liberal Kathleen Weil won by more than 13,000 votes over the second-place CAQ candidate in 2012.

This doesn’t discourage Sidel, who is vice-president of operations and marketing for a family-owned business that provides maintenance services to retail chains. He’s also a freelance journalist, specializing in sports, and he worked in communications for the Montreal Alouettes from 2004 to 2010.

Sidel, who was born in NDG and is a lifelong area resident (unlike Weil), believes he represents the values of that close-knit district, where anglophones and francophones, not only get along, but “work and play together.”

As a small-business owner, he thinks he represents the priority the CAQ places on the economy and entrepreneurship.

“I disagree passionately that I have no chance of winning,” said Sidel, who turns 33 on April 7.

He also disagrees that the third-party CAQ’s overall chances are fading as this election appears to be turning into a two-way race. Founded in 2011, the CAQ holds 18 of the 125 National Assembly seats.

To those electors whose first priority is stopping the PQ from getting re-elected, or at least, achieving a majority, Sidel points out that it is “mathematically impossible” for the PQ to win in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce.

He also rejects the argument that any seat the Liberals don’t win gives an advantage to the PQ, saying that the 18 seats the CAQ holds had, almost equally, been previously held by the PQ or the Liberals, and that is likely to recur if the party is to have a better showing this time.

Assouline, a lawyer and business person, is the CAQ standard-bearer in Laurier-Dorion, currently held by Liberal Gerry Sklavounos.

In addition to practising law, she ran a direct marketing business.

Birnbaum and fellow Liberal candidates incumbent Pierre Arcand (Mont Royal) and newcomer Hélène David (Outremont) are scheduled to take part in discussion March 25 at the Jewish Russian Community Centre, 5380 Bourret Ave., at 7 p.m.

Organizer Mark Groysberg said he has received confirmation from Couillard that he will also attend, if he is in Montreal at that time.

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