Anthony Housefather intends to run again in Mount Royal—but for who? Read his Q&A with Ellin Bessner

Anthony Housefather
Anthony Housefather

It’s been a tumultuous time for Anthony Housefather, the Liberal MP for Mount Royal since October 2015. His Montreal riding has been a safe Liberal seat since 1940, previously held by stalwarts including the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau, senator Sheila Finestone, and Irwin Cotler. Housefather left municipal politics after a decade as a mayor of Côte Saint-Luc and was elected as part of Justin Trudeau’s sweeping majority defeat of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Since then, Housefather has been re-elected twice.  But his party’s shift to a more pro-Palestinian stance on Israel-Hamas since Oct. 7 has left him feeling increasingly isolated. This comes after he was the only Liberal MP to vote last fall against the revamped Official Languages Act, which he felt curtailed English-speaking Quebecers’ rights.

Housefather spent last week “reflecting” on his political future—will it be with the Liberal party, where he has spent the last thirty years since joining as a youth member while in university in Montreal? Will he help the Conservatives win their first seat in Montreal since the late prime minister Brian Mulroney was in power in the early 1990s? Sit as an Independent? Or jump back into provincial politics in Quebec?

A lawyer and MBA by profession, Housefather isn’t saying yet what he’ll decide. But he’s doing a lot of listening to his constituents, to advisors, and to mentors.  

Housefather spoke with The CJN Daily’s Ellin Bessner on what his week has been like, what it would take for him to stay or to jump ship, and how he’s been on the receiving end of a flood of hate mail, from both the left and the right. Listen to that interview in the podcast.

And joining us now from Montreal is Anthony Housefather, parliamentary secretary to the Treasury Board president and MP for Mount Royal. Welcome to the CJN. Welcome back to the CJN Daily.

Thank you, Ellin. So nice to be with you. 

It’s true. We actually haven’t met in person, I don’t think yet, but maybe

I know. I see your mom all the time and I never see you. 

Well, someday. Look, I want to thank you very much for giving us your time. I want to know, did you write the ‘I am Canadian, I am a Zionist’ speech and print it in advance. Or was it like an impromptu thing? How did the speech come about? 

So absolutely. I always speak extemporaneously. I never write speeches. I write lines down on paper. So I have like five or six lines that I know I want to cover in the speech. But I never write speeches. So that was all from the heart. It was all at the moment having listened to the debate and what other people said at the debate.

And the ‘I am Canadian, I am a Jew, and I am a Zionist’ came from listening to others who were attacking Israel and clearly not understanding that Jewish Canadians are not responsible for the actions of Israel, and why it is so important for us to identify with Israel. And seeing the ignorance from some other colleagues, having listened to their speeches, I thought it was a really important way to lead into this speech, and to explain why Jewish Canadians, the vast majority of us, believe in the State of Israel.

When you saw colleagues across the aisle, some of your own too, wearing keffiyehs and channeling Vivian Silver’s memory, what went through your mind? 

Well, having been to Kfar Aza and having seen homes—I didn’t see Vivian Silver’s home, she was in another kibbutz, but I saw homes where people were burned to death in their safe rooms like Vivian Silver—I thought it was incredibly appalling to use her memory to defend these positions that they were espousing. And yes, it was horrifying for me to see people do that in the House of Commons. And the worst thing for me was Heather McPherson, wearing a keffiyeh, being saluted by a standing ovation by many of my colleagues in the Liberal Party. And I thought that was just horrendous. 

It was interesting that Jenica Atwin abstained. But many of your colleagues, three of your Jewish colleagues, did not. Have you spoken with them? Julie Dabrusin? Karina wasn’t there, of course, and neither was Ya’ara. But did you speak to them? Have you reached out or they reached out to you? 

Well yes before the vote and after the vote I have spoken to Julie. Julie is a very good friend and Julie was going to vote no until the amendments were tabled. And Julie’s riding is, of course, very different from mine.

Heavily Muslim riding, especially in the Jones Avenue and Danforth area.

Yeah. I have spoken to her since the vote. I have not spoken to Ya’ara. Karina called me this morning. But on the subject of the vote, no, I haven’t asked them about their votes. You know that only myself and Marco Mendicino and Ben Carr voted ‘No’ from the Liberal side. And I hadn’t even known that Jenica abstained.

You said in the other interviews that you’re considering your options crossing the floor. Is that actually true?

Well, what I’ve said is I’m considering all options. And all options for me means all options. I intend to run again in the next election in Mount Royal. I intend to be re-elected in Mount Royal. But I really need to soul-search after what happened on Monday.

Last year, as you remember, Ellin, I was the only member of parliament that voted against the Official Languages Act Bill C-13.

Most English-speaking Montrealers, including most members of the Jewish community, have been Liberals their whole lives. And largely, at least in my lifetime, it’s because we believe the Liberal party would best defend federalism and protect us from Quebec separation. And because the Liberal party was the one that stood up for the rights of minority groups in Quebec, including the English speaking community and the Jewish community. And so in my elections, all of my promises to the community had been that I will fight for the rights of the minority language communities across the country, including English speaking Quebec, I will fight for the Jewish community, fight against antisemitism, and that I will fight for Israel.

And in 2015, the Prime Minister {Justin Trudeau] came to my riding and at a synagogue in my riding said that there will be no daylight between ourselves and the Conservatives on Israel, other than the fact that we won’t use it as a wedge issue amongst Canadian Jews. And I think we lived up to that from 2015 until the fall of 2023.

But as the war started, you know, we were fine the first month.

And then in December, we voted in favor of a UN resolution that I opposed that called for an immediate ceasefire without conditions. Even though our statement with Australia and New Zealand didn’t say that.

Then we were unable to articulate clearly that Israel was not committing genocide.

Then it was the re-funding of UNRWA that I opposed.

And along with Marco and Ben and…

And Kevin Vuong, not a Jewish person, but a supporter and ally for sure. [sits as an Independent}

Of course. We’re talking about now in the Liberal caucus, when Kevin Vuong is  not in the Liberal caucus. 

Me and Marco and Ben have, you know, and some others have made the fight. But it’s been difficult. And then this vote came and the original NDP motion was so anti-Israel and so horrendous that I made clear to Minister Melanie Joly, to the Prime Minister, and his staff that, to me, that vote was a red line. That to me, we had to, as a government position, say no. Which would be the normal thing in an opposition motion that the government totally didn’t agree with. You would just vote against the NDP motion. 

And what happened was, instead of voting against this horrible anti-Israel motion that created a false equivalency between Israel and the terrorist group Hamas, they decided to amend it. And yes, those amendments made the resolution much more balanced and much better, but it still wasn’t good. And it still, for example, called for an arms ban, which is ridiculous when Israel is at war. That we’re telling Israel we’re not going to ship arms to Israel, but Hamas is going to get arms from Iran, and Hezbollah is going to get arms from Iran.

And if all the world followed Canada, then Hezbollah and Hamas would be firing missiles at Israel and Israel wouldn’t be able to defend itself. 

And as Minister, as parliamentary secretary to the Minister of Procurement, you know, a little thing or two about what Canada buys from Israel. 

Yeah. A lot more than we sell to Israel. 

Tell me about that. What do you know? Is it four times more? What do we get from Israel compared to what we send? 

Yeah. I mean the Defense Department buys a considerable amount more from Israel, multiple times more than we ship to them.

And all the Canadian government does, by the way, is we issue licenses to let people ship non-lethal weapons to Israel.

The United States actually gives aid to Israel. The United States actually sends billions of dollars to Israel, weapons or other things. We don’t do any of that. All we do is give a license to private Canadian companies to ship to Israel, which now apparently will not be happening. 

We only had this revised motion five minutes before the vote. So I had no idea how to study it, interpret it, or get legal opinions on what it actually meant. But anyways, there was no need to do these amendments in my view. We should have just voted no.

And it was horrendous for me. I felt very isolated for me, and Marco and Ben.

And I just want to also say something if you don’t mind, Ellin. There’s been nobody in Canada more loyal to the Jewish community and who’s helped the Jewish community more than Marco Mendicino. I think every Jewish person living in Eglinton-Lawrence should know that their MP has fought for them more than anybody could ever imagine. And he’s not even Jewish. 

Right. Back to the motion though. Is it true that the Conservatives were playing Hava Nagila in the corridors while the voting was happening? We heard that. Is that true?

I didn’t hear it. I don’t know. I do know that there was an Israeli flag in the Conservative lobby. But I did not hear the Hava Nagila.

It may have happened, but I didn’t hear it. I was in the House. I joined Marco and I joined the Conservatives to try to object to the amendments on procedural grounds. And so I never left the House. I don’t know what was happening. 

What would it take for you, in terms of your own principles, to join the Conservative party, which we need to remind our listeners had supported the truckers, which some people did not agree with. And there was a Swastika flag at the truckers’ event. What conditions would you have to meet to join them if you were going to do that? 

I’m not going to negotiate with myself on air. I think the main thing is I’d have to feel comfortable in my head, whatever I did, if this is the right thing for my community.

My riding is one third Jewish, but I have two thirds of my riding that’s not Jewish. I have to make sure that all the views and values that I’ve espoused, I could still do.

And I have to figure out where I fit. Again, I’m normally, like most Canadian Jews, I have been a Liberal.

I think our community is very divided now. And now much less divided and much more conservative since the last few months.

But I really need to make sure that my values overall, and one of those very important ones would be, the rights of the English speaking minority in Quebec. The Conservatives have not historically had a good position at all on that issue. And it would be something that I would need to make sure that we had a real opening. But also I would note that the Conservatives have not had an English speaking Montrealer in their caucus for 30 years. And so having the voice there might change things. 

So again, I just have to get comfortable in my head. I’m talking to a lot of friends and family and thousands of people have written in telling me what they think I should do. And I appreciate it. I read every email. 

What did Irwin Cotler tell you?

He has given me advice, but I think that would be up to Irwin Cotler if he wants to share that with you. 

In 2019 in September, there was a debate at the Spanish {and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal and you and David Tordjman  {Conservative candidate) were debating. And you said Israel and Jewish issues should not become a wedge issue because eventually the Conservatives are going to, you know, as they do, they alternate in power with the Liberals. And this should be a bipartisan thing. Now we’re in 2024. How do you feel about those words now?

I remember it vividly. And so I’ve always believed you need to have strong voices in both parties because they alternate power. And it would be an absolute shame if one party came to power without strong voices from the Jewish community and strong pro-Israel voices in the party. And I’ve always believed that. 

And I guess my question is, after Monday, have we turned into a party that I don’t fit into anymore because my voice is so not heard? And I think also many of my constituents are saying their voices are not being heard and I have to listen to them and I certainly know that my being a Liberal creates a real dilemma for many of my constituents when you know they they want to vote for me, but they also don’t like the party now that I’m representing and so, I accept that. I have to work this all through in my mind. I love my Liberal colleagues. I will never have a bad word to say about the Prime Minister, about my Liberal colleagues as people, they’re all wonderful. And I have dear friends and deep friendships there. And if you ever were to leave that, all of that, there’s a resentment there for sure. And I wouldn’t want to cause pain to anybody. So like all of these things are personal, larger community—because in the end, of course, as an elected official, I have to represent a larger community before myself—all of these things sort of weigh on me. And I’m also, I think, very unusual because normally when politicians would be having this existential angst, they would never make it public. They would never talk about it. But I’ve always been a very unusual politician in the sense that I always really say what I think. I never hide who I really am. And I think that draws me a lot closer to my constituents than most MPs are ever to their constituents because we’re like family.  And I think that in this case, I’m not alone. I think the struggle is being had by Jewish people across the country in terms of trying to remember like, well, generally our values align with X but on Y…

But then they’re thinking ‘None is Too Many,’ and they go, “Wait, not always.’ And so let me ask you a question. Donald Trump. (Okay. Just bear with me.) Donald Trump said last week that any Jew who votes for the Democrats hates their religion.

Yeah, he’s an idiot. 

I understand that. But the substance of what he asks, what he was referring to is something that Jews are soul searching. It’s like, which party do they belong to now? Yeah. Because Democrats are wearing keffiyehs and there’s pressure. And that’s the question that Jews are asking. 

Although I have to say in the United States, I think the situation is very different. I think the Biden administration has been very supportive of Israel. I think [Anthony] Blinken has been very supportive of Israel. And I think the Democrats in Congress have been very supportive of Israel overall. There’s a small percentage of their party that is not, but there the vast majority of held pro-Israel positions. 

But Chuck Schumer talks about…, so there’s like, there’s this change. So here’s what I was wondering. In the riding of Mount Royal since 1940, if people want to look this up, it’s been held by the Liberals. Real Caouette (founder of the Social Credit Party of Canada) who was quoted as saying, this is a former Quebec politician, that if you put a mailbox and ran it for the Liberals, because it’s red, they would win. 

But the Conservatives tried to get that riding when Robert Libman was running against you, my old classmate from Herzliah High School. And Stephen Harper, I remember, came there. That was his first stop on his election campaign because they thought there was a chance. So if you jump, there’s really no risk to you because you’ll get elected anyway. Over 50 % of the vote last time, the Conservative candidate Frank Cavallaro was way behind you at 23%. So,  there’s really no risk to your political career. You could win no matter what, because everyone likes you, right? 

So Mount Royal has been close twice:  in the Diefenbaker election in the late 1950s and in 1984. And then in 2011, Irwin Cotler won by only five points. He won 41-36 against Saulie Zajdel. In 2015, I widened that to 14 percent. And in 2019 and 2021, I won by 32 and 34 percent. So 58 to 23: people would look at that and say it’s one of the safest Liberal ridings in the country. So of course there’s a risk that if I’m not the Liberal candidate, you know, how do I do in Mount Royal?

 I’m just confident. I think that most of this is as much an “Anthony vote” as a “party vote”. And I think I would be able to win however I ran, I believe. And so that’s not what I’m really thinking about. Like I’m not thinking about how do I win. A lot of politicians think “how do I win”. I don’t think anybody would see that if I went to the [Conservative] party that got 23 % of the vote in the last election that I was doing it to win the riding. Right? I’m really soul searching and soul searching not only for me, but really for the community. And that’s why I’m wanting to listen to the community because, do I need  to send some message [to Ottawa] on behalf of the community? And I felt so isolated on Monday that  I can imagine  how Jewish Canadians who have no vote feel. How they just watch the House of Commons do that, and they don’t have the ability to have any say, At least I could vote. They’re locked out. So to me, like this is the kind of conversations I’m having with everyone, and I’m not gonna rush on this. I’m really thinking about it, and I know certainly this is, you know, this is something that’s unusual to do, but I have the utmost affection for the Liberals. I have the utmost affection for my party. 

You’ve been a young Liberal since 1994, when you were at school. 


I don’t think people realize you have an MBA and you got your law degree from Quebec, both universities, McGill and Concordia. What was your antisemitism experience, if at all, back then, or if you can remember, compared to what you’re now—seeing and getting a national inquiry to be held by the [House of Commons] standing committee on justice, right? 

Yeah, yesterday at the justice committee, they adopted my motion to do a study on antisemitism in Canada with a particular focus on university campuses. So I’m very pleased about that. I think it’s going to be really important. And when I was in college, I don’t remember any antisemitic incident ever. I don’t remember ever feeling as a Jew that I wasn’t fully equal. I never felt any antiSemitism at all until I was elected federally. 

What was the worst thing that people have said to you? Or one of the worst things. I mean, you must get tons of hate mail 

Oh, yeah. 

What’s the worst thing? 

I mean, it’s mostly that I should die. I’m a filthy Zionist. I should be, like, you know, bombed in Gaza. I mean, all kinds of horrible things. I should be put in the gas chamber. And then on the other hand, on the right, I get that I’m a kapo or a Quisling because I’m in the Liberals. So no matter what I say or do and how strongly I advocate for Israel and how strongly I advocate for Jews, some people, especially in the Jewish community on the far right, are the ones attacking me the most and saying horrible things about me. And that’s really sad.

You said you’re soul searching. Are you a religious person? Are you praying? Are you going to shul? Are you talking to your friends?

I am going to shul only on Saturdays because for the last long period of time, they’ve been asking me to come in on Saturdays to different synagogues to give the sermon and talk about antisemitism and talk about what’s going on. But no, I’m not a religious person. I’m purely a secular Jew. I’m very tied to the Jewish community through Maccabiah, Jewish sports, Jewish volunteer organizations. I’ve always felt a great identity as part of the Jewish people, but I’m not religious.  I’m not particularly spiritual. I’m much more logical. 

I was just wondering if you were praying or if you’re reading something that’s helping you or I mean, I imagine swimming is helping you. 

Swimming is always, swimming and running remove my toxins, detoxifications.

Well, you did win 12 medals so far. Are you going back to the Maccabiah Games in 2025?

It’s next summer.and it’s an election year. So I’m going to register, but I don’t know. It depends on the circumstances of what’s going on at the time, but I’d love to go. I didn’t go to the 2021 games because of COVID and because my training wasn’t good, but I’ve been to them when I was young and I went back to them as an adult in 2013 and 2017. And yeah, I won seven medals in ‘13 and five in ‘17. And I’d love to go again. I love experiencing Maccabiah because it’s bringing Jews together from around the world with a common bond of all doing sports and you meet wonderful people from all kinds of countries and develop relationships and learn from one another. And whenever I go to any country, when I’m in Australia, when I’m in Argentina, I have people to stay with from Maccabiah, you know, that are always inviting me. So it’s a wonderful connection.

And what are they asking you now when they see what happened in Canada, and they see the caricature cartoon in La Presse with the Nosferatu? I mean, what are your friends from outside, Debbie Wasserman Schultz? What are they asking you? 

So Debbie actually texted me on Monday, so did Brad Schneider and so did a few other members of Congress, Kathy Manning. They saw my speech. I didn’t send it to them. Somehow this speech really went pretty viral. All these Americans have seen it and legislators around the world. I got legislators in England, legislators in Argentina, legislators in South Africa contacting me. So, what are they saying? Most countries, antisemitism is much worse than Canada, right? The only comparable country to us historically is the United States and Australia, which have less antisemitism. But in most of Europe, antisemitism already starts from a level that is so much higher that this isn’t surprising to anyone anywhere else. It’s only surprising to Americans and Canadians and Australians because we don’t live with this normally. So nobody looks at me and says, “Oh, it’s so I feel so bad for you as Canada” because they have it themselves. In the United States, though, I do believe it’s profoundly less in the sense that American Jews are seeing increased antisemitism, particularly on college campuses. But I don’t believe they feel as insecure as we do. I think that’s largely because…

Well, there’s way more of them too. 

Well, yeah, there’s eight million versus four hundred thousand. And they’re close to 3 percent of the American population versus 1 percent. But I think it’s also because they believe their government has by and large been supportive of Israel. And most Canadian Jews today, I’m not gonna lie, most Canadian Jews today would say our government has not been.

Lastly, you were mentioning about the terrible things people are writing, but, can you say whether you’re getting extra security, even more since the last week or so?

I wouldn’t  ever comment on that because, you know, I don’t think people should ever know what, what security is there, what’s not there. So I think everybody is being vigilant. I think all Jewish parliamentarians and in fact, more than Jewish parliamentarians, others too, are getting threats and I’ve never seen anything like this since I was first elected. This is a completely new level. I’ve taken a lot of controversial stands on Quebec separatism, for example. I’ve never had threats from Quebec separatists that, you know, that they’re going to do me harm. 

Where can you not go? What can you not do? Can you just leave the house, go walk to the gym, go swim, or you have to have security? 

I’m still doing this. I am not going to let myself change my life because of anything. But of course, what I do now, when I schedule a meeting, I make sure that I only do it in a safe location. I will always look, when I go into a building as to where the exits are, and where the escapes could be, which I never would have done before in my life. And, you know, I will not go walking or running, without having friends with me. I’ll always go with friends now, I will never do it myself. Those are kind of just a few things. Like most of my stuff I’m acting completely normally, but there’s just some things that I’m doing that are a little bit different.

Thank you for telling me that. And lastly, you said that lots of people have reached out to you, but you’re still able to do all your activities going to your usual House of Commons business and everything, traveling. You’re still keeping your duties as… 

Oh, yes, of course. I mean, I’m still going to committees. I’m still acting as a parliamentary secretary. I’m still doing everything. I’m never going to change what I do. You know I’m not stopping doing my work. The only difference, Ellin, which is really interesting, is when I first got elected in 2015, I always have been involved in the Israel relationship and Jewish issues in Canada. I’m usually a point person for the Jewish community on issues. But let’s say in the normal course from 2015 till the war, Jewish issues would occupy 10 percent of my time as a parliamentarian. Since the last few months, it’s occupying 40 percent, 50 percent of my time as a parliamentarian. So much of my day is talking to students on campuses in places across the country, trying to deal with presidents of universities that are causing problems, dealing with just any problem that people have. It’s almost like I become an ombudsman for it and they’re writing to my office. And a lot of times the things I can’t help with, most of the time it is.

I did that to you, too, about kosher meat

 Well, kosher meat I can help with and am helping with. I mean, that’s a little bit of a misconception about what happened there. And I think, but the important thing is trying to make sure there’s an exemption given to shechita or the regulations are interpreted differently to make sure that these slaughterhouses can do kosher slaughter in a way that doesn’t make it unprofitable. So I’m working hard with that. And, you know of course, I’m doing that as a member of the governing party. You know, people don’t understand that being a member of the governing party gives you the ability to help with a lot of issues that you wouldn’t have, being in the opposition. And so that’s also part of the equation of everything. 

Right. Because do you think the Liberals are going to lose? 

Lose what? The next election? Oh, I don’t think I should prognosticate on what’s going to happen in the next election. I mean, as you know, polling is a moment in time.

I mean, that’s what most people are thinking is that, you know the Tories are going to win. So this is actually not a risk for you. It’s a personal decision, but you would still get elected. That’s why I asked you before.

I mean, whether I would get elected or not, I think I think I will. I’ve never lost an election. I’ve run three times for council or three times for mayor, three times for MP. I have never lost. And I would never go into an election to lose an election. Like nobody works harder than I do in an election and I will not lose an election. But, on the national level, I don’t control what happens in a national election. And again, I think people can look at the current polls. They can get a good understanding from the current polls of where things would be now. But 18 months from now, we’ll have to see. 

Right. That’s all the time we have. I really appreciate it.

No, it’s such a pleasure. Thank you, Ellin.