A former imam who gained international prominence with a moving speech at a funeral for some victims of the Quebec City mosque attack has won the federal Liberal nomination in a party bastion in the heart of Montreal’s Italian community.
Hassan Guillet, a lawyer and engineer who retired from Bombardier Inc. in 2006, won the nomination for the Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel riding Monday night at a meeting that featured a kilometre-long lineup of enthusiastic supporters outside the hall. Mr. Guillet, who lives in farm country about 40-kilometres southwest of Montreal, was the part-time imam of a mosque in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que., and a long-time Quebec Muslim leader before he gained wider prominence in the wake of the mosque attack.
The nomination marks a change of guard in one of the Liberal Party of Canada’s safest seats. Liberal MPs of Italian origin have represented the area since 1984. Mr. Guillet, who speaks seven languages, spoke in conversational Italian for part of his victory speech. “My message was that I’m going to serve them as much as I’m going to serve anyone else,” Mr. Guillet said in an interview.
Mr. Guillet, 66, came to Canada from Lebanon in 1974, married a French-Canadian Roman Catholic named Nathalie Groulx. They had four children. He said he built his life around gaining acceptance, whether it was explaining Islam to Quebeckers as a representative of the province’s council of imams or persuading his Muslim Lebanese family to accept his wife.
“All my life I’ve been stretching limits, building bridges. At the end of their lives, my parents called my wife their daughter. My goal is to convince Italian members of our community that I’m their MP,” he said.
In a province roiled by controversy over the place of religion in society, Mr. Guillet’s faith will likely be an election issue. The Quebec government’s draft legislation to ban religious dress and symbols among public servants in positions of authority, including teachers, will likely pass in June. The law wouldn’t touch a federal MP, but the debate surrounding it has made life difficult for many Muslims, who have reported a spike in abusive incidents.
Mr. Guillet, who stepped down from his volunteer imam position in June to concentrate on politics, said he does not intend to use religion as a guidepost for political decisions. “If I’m elected, my job is to uphold the Constitution of Canada,” Mr. Guillet said. That includes divisive issues such as abortion, he said, while pointing out that Islam has “a margin of debate you don’t find in Catholicism. There is flexibility. There is no equivalent of the Pope.”
Reporters quizzed Liberal MPs in Ottawa about how Mr. Guillet can represent Quebeckers who are pushing for greater secularism and the dress code. “He’s committed to step away from his role as imam, and last time I saw him he was in a suit and tie,” said Montreal MP Pablo Rodríguez, the Heritage and Multiculturalism Minister.
Minister Mélanie Joly said she is happy for her new colleague. “Every Quebec citizen has the same voice and the same rights. I look forward to working with Mr. Guillet,” she said.
Mr. Guillet would not be the first MP with a clerical background. Toronto Liberal MP Rob Oliphant is a United Church minister. Raymond Gravel was a Quebec MP and Roman Catholic priest from 2006 to 2008 – until the Vatican forced him to choose between callings after he expressed support for abortion rights.
The demographics of the Saint-Leonard and Saint-Michel neighbourhoods of northern Montreal are changing, with a growing population of people from Arabic-speaking countries.
Notary Francesco Cavaleri and lawyer and city councillor Patricia Lattanzio were the two defeated candidates. Riding insiders say Mr. Guillet ran a quiet, well-organized campaign to sign up new members of the party with roots in Lebanon, Algeria and Morocco, while the Italians were split.
Nicola Di Iorio, the MP for the area who resigned in January, attended the nomination meeting and said 3,000 people showed up to vote, some of whom were not Liberal members and were ineligible, but enthusiastic to support Mr. Guillet. In the end, Liberal members cast 1,200 ranked ballots.
But Mr. Di Iorio and other riding insiders also say Mr. Guillet’s victory and the failure of his opponents to unite and rally traditional Saint-Leonard Liberals were also a measure of flagging enthusiasm for the leadership of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“There are topics people are not happy about,” Mr. Di Iorio said. “Cannabis, China, relations with the United States, this SNC-Lavalin mess. People are asking, ‘Where is our leadership?’ They are concerned with how the country is being managed.”
Mr. Di Iorio said Italian-Canadians aren’t voting in a bloc any more. They helped Conservatives win the recent Ontario provincial election, he said. In the Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel riding, where margins of Liberal victory are usually measured in tens of thousands, Liberals defeated the NDP by only 1,500 votes in 2011. The Conservative Party of Canada’s candidate in Saint-Leonard-Saint-Michel is Ilario Maiolo, a lawyer and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa.