Well-known former imam wins Liberal nomination in Montreal riding, becoming its first non-Italian nominee

Of note. Those of Italian ancestry are 22.5 percent of the population, compared 16 percent Arab and 17.3 percent Muslim (2011).

Full riding demographic, economic and social characteristics can be found here: 24069 Saint-Léonard-Saint-Michel.

A former imam who gained international attention for speaking at a funeral for victims of the Quebec City mosque shooting has won the Liberal nomination in the Montreal riding of Saint-Léonard—Saint-Michel, the first time the party has nominated a non-Italian in the Liberal stronghold.

Hassan Guillet said the Liberals were reluctant to have him run in Saint-Léonard, afraid of antagonizing the large Italian community. But he pushed ahead, and insists that he represents the community “better than everybody else,” pointing out that the riding is increasingly diverse and is now home to sizeable North African and Haitian populations as well.

“The Muslim community is as big as the Italian community,” Guillet told the Post in an interview. “The demographic changed enormously.”

Guillet claims to speak six languages, including Italian, and said he was the only potential candidate who could speak to the majority of the riding’s constituents in their mother tongue, whether it be French, English, Italian or Arabic.

His nomination ahead of the fall federal election marks a dramatic shift in the Montreal riding, which has been represented by members of the Italian community since its creation in 1988. The seat was held until 2002 by Alfonso Gagliano, a central figure in the Quebec sponsorship scandal, followed by Massimo Pacetti, who was expelled from the Liberal caucus in 2015 over accusations of sexual misconduct. The riding went to Nicola Di Iorio in the last federal election, who announced his resignation in April 2018 but didn’t officially resign until the end of January 2019.

Last fall, CBC News reported that Di Iorio had expected to hand-pick his successor, and changed his mind about resigning when he was told there would be an open nomination process. Ultimately, he vacated his seat late enough to prevent a byelection from being held before October’s election.

Guillet said he approached the Liberals when Di Iorio first announced he planned to resign, thinking he would run in a byelection. He doesn’t live in the community, but said much of his family does, and the idea of running in a Liberal stronghold was appealing. “The Liberal party is the party that is closest to my ideals, to my principles, to my way of life,” he said.

Guillet said the Liberals were interested in him, but suggested he run elsewhere. “They had a dilemma. On the one hand, they wanted me to be there,” he said. “But they didn’t want to alienate the Italian community, because historically it was always run by an Italian. … They cannot imagine losing Saint-Léonard.”

But Guillet’s mind was made up. He competed for the nomination against city councillor Patricia Lattanzio and Francesco Cavaleri, a notary and friend of Di Iorio’s. On Monday night, he won the nomination, with more than 1,200 members casting ballots. “Everyone was telling me it was unprecedented,” he said.

In a statement, Liberal Party spokesperson Braeden Caley said Guillet is “well-known for his long record of community leadership” and that “Liberals are looking forward to running a positive campaign focused on Justin Trudeau’s progress to strengthen the middle class, grow the economy, protect a clean environment, and make life better for Québec families.”

Guillet said he’d heard that his competition didn’t take him seriously, and that he remained “nameless” for much of the campaign. “I wasn’t even a person,” he said. “I was ‘the imam.’ ” He said he delivered his speech before the vote on Monday night in six languages, and fought throughout the campaign to prove he was “not the enemy.”

He also said the working assumption in the riding was that Arabic-speaking newcomers don’t vote, in part because many of them have immigrated from countries “where democracy was either non-existent or very badly practised.”

“My job was to open their eyes, to educate them and to make them participate,” he said.

Guillet received worldwide attention after speaking at the funeral of three of the victims of the 2017 shooting at a mosque in Quebec City. Part of his sermon, in which he referred to shooter Alexandre Bissonnette as a victim in his own right, was retweeted by author J. K. Rowling, who said his words were “extraordinary and humane.”

Guillet, who moved to Canada from Lebanon in 1974 and is a retired engineer and lawyer, stopped serving as an imam when he decided to run for federal office. Still, his background may prove a hurdle in a province where secularism is a live political issue. However, Guillet insists he had no religious authority as an imam, and that it shouldn’t stop him from “exercising (my) constitutional right.”

“I think the different facets of my experience will enrich debate in the House of Commons,” he said.

Source: Well-known former imam wins Liberal nomination in Montreal riding, becoming its first non-Italian nominee

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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