In the early 1980s, an unassuming young Jewish teacher found himself taking on the autocratic administration of Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau.
The grievance was the arbitrary cancellation of a bus route in the Snowdon district providing a vital link from the West End to downtown.
Marvin Rotrand spearheaded a petition that collected 10,000 names and the bus was restored, no small feat in a city where power was highly centralized and grassroots activism derided.
In the following municipal elections of 1982, Rotrand was persuaded to run in Snowdon by the upstart Montreal Citizens’ Movement (MCM), which sought to reform city hall. Rotrand was pitted against Drapeau’s right-hand man, Gerry Snyder, who had held the seat since 1957.
“Even my mother told me I couldn’t win,” said Rotrand. But his father joined him during the campaign, helping to produce advertising in Yiddish, which was appreciated by the then many Jewish residents.
Rotrand was victorious, of course, one of 15 MCM councillors who would form the first effective opposition to the Drapeau regime. Rotrand was re-elected in increasingly multicultural Snowdon successively until the 2017 campaign, which he announced would be his last. The “dean” of city council leaves this November after 39 years.
Notably, Rotrand was vice-president for 17 years of the public transit commission until 2017.
Respected as one of the hardest-working Montreal politicians with an encyclopedic knowledge of a myriad of files, Rotrand in the last two years has been especially outspoken on issues affecting minorities and the need to fight hate.
This March, he led an effort to get more resources for the police hate crimes unit. He has brought attention to the rise, in particular, of antisemitism and anti-Asian racism.
Rotrand’s final motion in September urges the incoming council to adopt an anti-racism strategy that would mandate, annual public hearings on hate crimes and incidents and a detailed police report to council on such events. He also wants the city to recognize May as Jewish Heritage Month.
Rotrand’s appointment this month as national director of B’nai Brith Canada’s League for Human Rights (LHR) is a natural fit and elevates the organization’s presence in Quebec. He replaces Ran Ukashi of Winnipeg, who was the first LHR national director based outside of Toronto.
Now 70, Rotrand was shaped by his parents’ Holocaust experience; they were the sole survivors of their respective families. Moniek and Sally, who came from near Lodz, Poland, met at the Bergen-Belsen camp, his father having earlier been in Auschwitz twice. They immigrated to Montreal in 1948.
One of Rotrand’s final projects was getting the city to name a park for Elie Wiesel in Le Westbury, a new residential and commercial development in Snowdon, which will be inaugurated next spring.
“Under Drapeau, (first elected mayor in 1954) Montreal was one of the most closed city councils in North America,” said Rotrand. After Drapeau’s virtual one-party rule, the council became factionalized, with parties coming and going. Although he switched allegiances over the four decades, including forming his own party and most recently sitting as an independent, Rotrand insists his values never changed despite the fiercely partisan environment.
“I’m progressive but pragmatic as well. I believe in decentralization and placing power in the hands of citizens,” he said.
Rotrand grew disillusioned with Mayor Valérie Plante’s Projet Montréal, elected in 2017, and announced in June his support for the official opposition Ensemble Montréal, led by former mayor Denis Coderre who is running again Nov. 7.
“Projet Montréal is too ideological and dogmatic; it’s all about playing to their base: young people who ride bicycles,” he said. Rotrand is also very disappointed that Plante blocked consideration of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
Rotrand is endorsing the Ensemble candidate in Snowdon, Sonny Moroz, a former aide to Mount Royal MP Anthony Housefather, and councillor Lionel Perez’s bid for the mayoralty of the Côte des Neiges-Notre Dame de Grâce borough, of which Snowdon is part.
Perez and Rotrand are the only Jewish members of the 64-seat city council.
Rotrand’s current battle with Elections Montreal may carry over into his LHR role.
He complained to the president of elections that, for the first time, advance polls are being held on Saturdays (Oct. 30 and Nov. 6), as well as Sunday, Oct. 31, thus limiting the time observant Jews can vote. What’s more, there is no voting this year at the local office of the president of elections or by mail.
He has also taken on the cause of the more than 450 Jewish seniors living in three Caldwell Residences where, unlike in the past, polls are not being set up on site.
“This discriminates against Jews and is purposeful voter suppression,” Rotrand charges.
B’nai Brith Canada CEO Michael Mostyn stated: “Marvin’s extensive contacts at all three levels of government and his record of defending civil rights and building alliances between various communities will be a real asset for our organization… We look forward to Marvin strengthening our ability to sensitize government to antisemitism and hate in all its forms.”