Doorstep Postings: Sam Hersh’s quest to bring a progressive municipal government to Ottawa

This is the second in a series of opinion columns on Ontario’s 2022 municipal elections, written by Josh Lieblein for The CJN.

Sam Hersh was feeling under the weather on the day I got in touch with him for an interview. He wasn’t well enough to make his morning swim.

But illness wasn’t enough to slow Sam’s efforts to elect progressive candidates across Canada’s capital city. As a member of the board of directors of Horizon Ottawa, he and his fellow local organizers have been working for years to make change happen on city council.

And the time may be right for their efforts to finally pay off, thanks in large part to the very large Jim Watson -shaped hole left when the mayor announced that he wouldn’t be running again. There’s lots of turnover at the city councillor level as well with eight incumbents not running. (A new ward will also be created.)

Sam is glad to see Watson go. The former Liberal MPP’s heavy-handed approach was a key motivator for Sam and his friends to assemple Horizon Ottawa.

“[Watson] had a tendency to mute his critics’ microphones—particularly women,” he says, citing an incident where retiring councillor Diane Deans was cut off after asking for a judicial inquiry into the city’s frequently offline LRT line. The use of city staff to advance the mayor’s agenda was another common tactic.

It’s why he and his fellow organizers have made a more consultative, bottom-up approach one of their main goals. “There’s no participative process for the budget, for example,” he says. “It’s rolled out two months before it’s voted on, and there’s no time for anyone to have a say.”

He’s got some tough words for developers who have exerted their influence through donations. “A lot of Watson’s allies took money from developers,” he claims. 

Would he call the group of challengers to the status quo a slate, something almost unheard of in Ontario city politics? “We haven’t come out with formal endorsements yet,” Sam told me (several times in fact). He was very careful not to tip his hand, but it’s pretty clear what the goal is if you check social media: a progressive majority on Ottawa City Council, led by Somerset Ward councillor and current mayoral favourite Catherine McKenney—who has a commanding lead over rivals, if you believe the polls. 

Other favourites include candidates Shawn Menard in Capital Ward, Jeff Leiper in Kitchissippi, Laura Shantz in Rideau-Vanier, and citizen transit commissioner Sarah Wright-Gilbert (who isn’t running as a candidate). In places where there isn’t an obvious Horizon Ottawa favourite, they can be found actively looking for one.

Sam is one of two visibly Jewish faces who comprise the vanguard of this Bytown revolution. The other is Ariel Troster, a veteran non-profit and labour organizer who seeks to succeed McKenney in Somerset. And while Sam proudly says that Judaism informs his fight for marginalized groups and against hate, he doesn’t hesitate to hold the truckers who descended on his city earlier this year responsible for a local surge of antisemitism.

“There were Nazi flags hanging from a hotel in the downtown,” he revealed. He wouldn’t give the name of the hotel, but he believes it was above a certain prominent sports bar on Elgin Street.

He’s also pushing for a freeze on the police budget, and a petition for the city to intervene in the sale of St. Brigid’s Church to the mysterious United People of Canada, a group with ties to figures in the freedom convoy movement. “Jews in the city feel unsafe when right-wing groups take over public spaces,” he says.

And while the Jewish community of Ottawa is small—concentrated in the Kanata suburbs in the city’s west end and former townships like Gloucester—Sam hopes a strong showing in October will give local Jews something to celebrate.

“It’d be nice to finally have some representation on council.”

Josh Lieblein can be reached at [email protected] for your response to Doorstep Postings.