For observers of the Jewish political scene, the federal riding of Thornhill is distinct for two reasons: It has Canada’s highest concentration of Jewish residents (37 percent of the total population, according to the last National Household Survey) and it’s the only one of 14 ridings in which Jews comprise more than five percent of the population that is not currently held by the Liberals.
Thornhill has been a Conservative stronghold since 2008, when former broadcaster Peter Kent wrested it from the Liberals, who had held the riding since its creation in 1997, first by former provincial cabinet minister Elinor Caplan, who went on to serve in the federal cabinet, then by former Vaughan councillor Susan Kadis from 2004 to 2008.
Kent, 78, announced his retirement late last year, paving the way for a new MP.
Seeking election this time is Tory hopeful Melissa Lantsman, a public relations executive, media commentator and former Conservative party staffer who defeated local MPP Gila Martow for the nomination; Liberal Gary Gladstone, who ran against Kent in 2019, losing by about 10,000 votes; and the NDP’s Raz Razvi, who will be looking to boost his party’s support, which stood at 6.5 percent of votes cast in the riding in the last election.
According to 338Canada.com, which predicts outcomes based on the latest polls, Thornhill is considered a “safe” seat for the Conservatives. As of Sept. 1, the projection shows the Conservatives at about 58 percent support; 30 percent for the Liberals; and nearly eight percent for the NDP.
The CJN sent identical questions to candidates on positions on Israel and antisemitism—issues that loom large in this riding—and on general matters.
On doorsteps, Lantsman said antisemitism comes up “multiple times a day.” She’s hearing “time and time again that we need a government that will speak out for the Jewish community and advocate for better funding and stricter penalties. It matters how we fund basic security for our religious schools and synagogues.”
The Conservatives “will continue to be a staunch and unequivocal supporter of the state of Israel,” she said, adding that if elected, they would keep a campaign pledge to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move Canada’s embassy there from Tel Aviv.
“Israel has a right to recognize its own capital and we support that right, as we would with any sovereign nation,” said Lantsman, 37, who was chief spokesperson for Ontario Premier Doug Ford during his 2018 election campaign. From 2007 to 2015, she served as communications director for federal ministers of finance, foreign affairs, trade, and the environment.
Canada must support Israel at the United Nations “because it is the right thing to do,” she said. As an MP in a Conservative government, Lantsman said she will advocate for cutting all funding to the UN agency that oversees the welfare of Palestinian refugees “immediately.”
She said the evidence is “clear” that the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is “a corrupt organization that finances antisemitic textbooks, radio and television programs and retains close ties to Hamas terrorists seeking to destroy Israel.”
After the Conservatives under Stephen Harper cut funding to UNRWA, the Liberals reinstated it, roughly $200 million to date, something Lantsman said “might be most shocking for Canadians.”
Asked how recommendations arising from the recent national summit on antisemitism could be implemented, Lantsman said: “Our community is going to need to fight harder. We have fewer Jews in Parliament, fewer Jews in cabinet, and fewer Jews speaking up against what is an increasing tidal wave of antisemitism. I plan to fight; this is the solution to seeing things get done for our community in Ottawa. We need voices, people willing to stand up and be counted every time to advocate for our community’s issues and I plan to do just that.”
She noted that there have been just 37 Jews ever elected to Parliament. “I’m proposing to be 38.”
Lantsman has served on the boards of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee and Jewish Addiction Community Services (JACS).
In a recent social media post, she noted that there is no mention of Israel in the Liberals’ policy platform (there are 10 in the Conservative platform.)
Many voters are also concerned about the rising cost of living, she noted.
“Families are watching our debt levels soar and wondering how their children and grandchildren are going to pay for it. I am hearing that people desperately want smart economic policy to get us out of this pandemic, not the endless spending of the current Liberal government.”
Gladstone, 60, a fundraiser who works in stakeholder relations for charities and non-profits, said he’s hearing from voters about vaccination passports, health care, climate change, jobs and the economy, support for Israel, and hate, particularly antisemitism, anti-Asian animus, and Islamophobia.
Israel and antisemitism are “major” issues in the riding, said Gladstone, who won nearly 19,000 votes in Thornhill in 2019, or about 35 percent of ballots cast.
Jewish voters are “largely pleased” with the recent antisemitism summit hosted by the federal government, “but they obviously want to see positive actions taken. They are especially supportive when they hear what the Liberal government under Justin Trudeau has actually done, versus what the Conservatives claim.”
He said “many” people were impressed by Trudeau’s statements at the summit—that antisemitism has no place in Canada; that it is a challenge for everyone, not just Jews; and that the government would take concrete steps to combat it in all its forms.
Jewish voters believe, as does the Liberal Party, in Israel’s right to defend itself, Gladstone stated. “They are also largely supportive of our positions on a two-state solution and better living conditions in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Liberals favour moving Canada’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem “as part of a negotiated peace settlement.” The status of Jerusalem “can only be resolved as part of a broader Israeli-Palestinian settlement,” Gladstone said.
As for funding UNRWA, the Liberals are “committed to helping the poorest and most vulnerable, including Palestinians.” He said Israel specifically asked Canada in 2015 to re-engage with UNRWA after Harper cut funding to the agency in 2012.
The reasons for reinstating funding were two-fold, Gladstone said.
“UNRWA is the sole organization with the mandate to provide basic services like education and health care to Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, West Bank and Gaza; and ensuring that UNRWA has sufficient resources is critical to meeting these needs and for regional security and stability.”
Canada monitors UNRWA “very closely and exercise(s) enhanced due diligence for all the funding we provide.” The education and health care needs of Palestinians are better addressed by a UN agency, even if it’s “imperfect,” than by the Palestinian Authority or Hamas, he said.
He cited figures which he said show the Liberals have a better track record of supporting Israel at the UN than did the Harper Conservatives.
Other Liberal accomplishments, he noted, have included opposing the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement; increasing federal funding for security at synagogues, schools and community centres; enhancing trade with Israel; and adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism.
If elected, Gladstone said he’ll work with other members of the Liberal caucus “to ensure they understand the reality of antisemitism and odious groups (that espouse) BDS.
Razvi, who runs a small business consulting firm, did not return The CJN’s questions or messages. At their virtual convention last spring, New Democrats voted to support a ban on trade with Israeli settlements and for an arms embargo against Israel.
Also running in Thornhill is Samuel Greenfield for the People’s Party of Canada. As of this writing, the Green Party of Canada had not announced a candidate in the riding. In 2019, the Greens polled three percent of votes cast, nearly triple from what they received in the previous election.