Joel Etienne to face Ya’ara Saks in York Centre

Joel Etienne

Joel Etienne is ready to hit the ground in York Centre.

The 47-year-old Jewish lawyer captured the federal Conservative nomination in the Toronto riding last month, defeating Julius Tiangson.

Etienne and Tiangson faced each other for the nomination for last October’s byelection as well. Etienne eventually dropped out of the race.

Tiangson lost the byelection by just 700 votes to Liberal newcomer Ya’ara Saks. She replaced Michael Levitt, who stepped down from the job to head the Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre.

Levitt, in turn, defeated Conservative Mark Adler in 2015.

York Centre has been represented by a Jewish MP since 2011. Estimates of the number of Jews in the riding have ranged from 14 to 19 percent of the total.

This time, Etienne believes the riding can be turned blue again if the Tories successfully reach out to its ethno-cultural communities.

He said three Toronto-area ridings with sizeable Jewish populations—Eglinton-Lawrence, Thornhill, and York Centre —“are part of the same ecosystem” in which there’s a rich diversity of ethnic origins, especially in the western parts of those ridings.

He said the Tories are making an effort “to be competitive and present” in the western regions of those ridings. “From a Conservative perspective, when we do that, we win, and when we don’t, it’s at our peril.

“But we don’t know what the next election will look like—online, virtual, or are we going to be able to knock on doors?”

Though busy mainly with setting up his organization, Etienne said the “one resounding issue” he’s already noticed is the availability of COVID vaccines.

“People are extremely frustrated. York Centre is in the middle of a hot spot (and has) a lot of essential workers, first responders, nurses and doctors. And a lot of folks who work in factories and retail—environments where they can’t stay at home. (These are) very brave folks very scared folks. The extra weeks and months of getting the vaccines in their arms have been quite terrifying for them.”

Etienne has held leadership roles in Zichron Yisroel Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Thornhill where he’s a member, and in the Jewish Students’ Network.

When it comes to support for Israel, “people are still very grateful to (former prime minister) Stephen Harper and the support he had for Israel. People remember that. It still resonates with voters.”

Born in Moncton, N.B., he graduated from the University of Montreal’s law school and moved to Toronto after the 1995 referendum, focusing on immigration and human rights in his legal practice, and co-producing a TV miniseries, Rising Suns, for the OMNI network.

He was the Canadian Alliance candidate in Eglinton-Lawrence in the federal election in 2000. Etienne finished third against Liberal incumbent Joseph Volpe.

His family history is notable. Etienne’s maternal grandfather was David Feuerwerker, a French rabbi and Resistance fighter during the Second World War who was decorated for his bravery, while his father is a political exile from Haiti.

“Public affairs and human rights, they’re in the blood,” he said.

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