By JANICE ARNOLD
MONTREAL - The almost century-old tradition that one Jewish member of the National Assembly was virtually guaranteed will be in doubt if the proposed redrawing of the provincial electoral map is adopted, critics say.
D'Arcy McGee, the overwhelmingly Jewish riding encompassing Côte St. Luc and Hampstead, is one of three Montreal Island ridings slated to disappear through merger with the neighbouring Notre Dame de Grâce and Mount Royal ridings, according to the recommendation of Quebec's electoral representation commission.
Victor Goldbloom, who was D'Arcy McGee MNA from the time of its creation in 1966 until 1979, said the continuous presence of at least one Jew in the assembly is not merely the consequence of a geographic concentration of Jewish voters.
"In 1911, Sir Wilfrid Laurier made a commitment to the Jewish community of Montreal that the Liberals would always have a Jewish candidateŠ The Quebec Liberal party shared the same commitment from almost that same time," said Goldbloom.
The federal Liberals broke that promise in 1965 when Pierre Elliott Trudeau was their candidate in Mount Royal, the seat he would hold until his resignation in 1984. But the provincial Liberals stuck with it. In fact, Goldbloom and his successor, Herbert Marx, both became cabinet ministers.
D'Arcy McGee was formed after the Jewish population migrated to the west end; before that, St. Louis was the unofficial Jewish riding and took in the area around St. Lawrence Boulevard.
St. Louis had a Jewish member from 1916 when Peter Bercovitch was first elected. Its last Jewish MNA was Harry Blank who served for 25 years until 1985.
Current MNA Lawrence Bergman termed the carving up of D'Arcy McGee as "vandalism of the worst nature."
There will be no riding with a Jewish majority after this redrawing and therefore the interests of the community will not be directly represented in the provincial capital, he said.
"D'Arcy McGee is a homogeneous riding, it has a cultural uniqueness. Breaking it up does not respect the commonality that unites the people. It was upon that commonality of interests that D'Arcy McGee was created. Now they are erasing its heart and soul," he said.
Being the MNA for D'Arcy McGee means being the de facto representative of the entire Jewish community, said Bergman.
"Since I was first elected in 1994, I have been intimately involved with almost all of the community's leaders and institutions. My duties go beyond D'Arcy McGee's boundaries. Many Jewish citizens outside the riding will [automatically] call me, because they feel more comfortable," he said.
Both Bergman and Goldbloom view the loss of D'Arcy McGee as a further narrowing of opportunity for Jews who want to enter public life. The Montreal Island municipal merger will result in the loss of the Côte St. Luc and Hampstead city councils, whose combined 16 seats are now all held by Jews.
After the merger, the new borough (which will also include Montreal West) will have just three seats on the Montreal council.
"Jewish representation in public life in Quebec is clearly being diminished," said Bergman. Other parties besides the Liberals and including the Parti Québécois (PQ) have also fielded Jewish candidates in D'Arcy
McGee, although only the Equality Party's Robert Libman was ever elected.
Now Cóte St. Luc mayor, Libman said the proposed redrawing appears to point to a strategy by the PQ government to "erode anglophone presence.
"First there was the municipalities, then the hospital boards, and now the electoral map. It seems to be following a pattern," Libman said.
As a majority Jewish riding, D'Arcy McGee has allowed the community "direct access to the National Assembly. Now that could be watered down considerably.
When Jews are no longer the majority, their influence is obviously diminished."
Alliance Quebec president and Hampstead councillor Anthony Housefather called the commission's proposal unacceptable.
"The recommendation to merge the ridings of D'Arcy McGee and NDG, two of only six ridings in the province that have an absolute majority of people who speak English as their home language, into one single riding, is of particular concern to the English-speaking community. Both of these ridings have historically been represented by English-speaking Quebecers who have provided leadership to Quebec's English-speaking community," he said.
If the National Assembly accepts the recommendation, the anglophone and Jewish communities will be "further marginalized."
Dividing the territory of D'Arcy McGee in two means the Jewish community "effectively loses the certainty of electing one of its own members to the National Assembly."
McGill University sociology professor Morton Weinfeld, holder of the chair in Canadian ethnic studies, agreed that the loss of the only majority Jewish riding could "hurt" the community. All minorities, he maintains, are better served when their public officials are "culturally sensitive" to the concerns of the citizens they serve.
Jack Jedwab, director of the Association for Canadian Studies and a demographer, takes a more positive view of the break up of D'Arcy McGee.
According to his analysis of the 1996 census figures, the net result would be two ridings with significant Jewish populations: NDG-D'Arcy McGee would be about 50 percent Jewish and Mount Royal "easily" 40 percent. (D'Arcy McGee today is 80 percent Jewish, he estimates.)
"You would have one with possibly a slight Jewish majority and another where Jews would represent overwhelmingly the largest single group," Jedwab said.
"Clearly, one or both would send a Jewish member to the National Assembly."
Nevertheless, Jedwab is opposed to the redrawing, in part, because of the "lack of cultural sensitivity" it indicates.
"The electoral commission says more seats are needed because of 'sociological realities,' that is, because the east end of the city is poorer it needs more representation. But why is it not giving equal weight to another sociological dimension - that the Jewish community is historically rooted and has a legitimate concern that it is being disempowered?"
Joseph Gabay, president of Canadian Jewish Congress, Quebec region, called the proposal a "blow" to the Jewish, ethnic and anglophone communities. "They are targeting minorities, and they will suffer from it. We are setting up a committee to monitor this closely."
Public hearings on the proposed new electoral map will be held in Montreal Sept. 10 to 12.