Israeli-Canadian Ya’ara Saks is Liberal Hopeful in York Centre

Oct. 5, 2020

By LILA SARICK

It’s been the challenges of being a single parent and business owner during the pandemic that led Ya’ara Saks to seek the nomination for the Liberals in this month’s federal byelection in York Centre.

As the city went into lockdown, the demand for services at the mental health agency where Saks is the director skyrocketed, she told the CJR in an interview.

Meanwhile, the yoga studio she owns had to shift to online classes and employees were struggling.

Ya’ara Saks

“My staff are part of the gig economy – many of them are women – and watching them try to figure out how to get through this, and the vulnerabilities it exposed, was a real eye-opener [that] we never really addressed,” said Saks. “This is the moment to address them.”

Last month, Saks was appointed the Liberal candidate by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, bypassing the traditional nomination process.

“I was as surprised as anyone,” said Saks, pointing out that the party’s decision accorded with its guidelines.

Gary Gladstone, who was unsuccessful as the Liberal candidate in last year’s federal election in Thornhill riding, was also seeking the nomination in York Centre. He said that although he was “disappointed” there was no riding vote, he would be supporting Saks. “I think she’s a wonderful candidate.”

Saks will face Conservative candidate Julius Tiangson, a Filipino-Canadian businessman who lost his bid for a seat in Mississauga in the 2015 federal election. Maxime Bernier, leader of the People’s Party of Canada, which does not have a seat in Parliament, has also indicated he is running in York Centre.

According to the 2016 census, 17 percent of the riding’s residents are of Filipino ethnic origin. The 2011 National Household Survey found that 13.6 percent of York Centre residents indicated they were Jewish. It has traditionally been a safe Liberal seat, although in 2011, Conservative Mark Adler defeated Liberal incumbent Ken Dryden. The Liberals recaptured the riding in 2015.

The byelection, scheduled for Oct. 26, was called after MP Michael Levitt stepped down to become CEO of the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

Apart from owning a yoga studio in the riding, Saks, 47, is the director of Trauma Practice for Healthy Communities, a charity that focuses on mental health. Addressing mental health issues, especially challenges that have arisen during the pandemic, will be a priority if she is elected, she said.

Saks, who was born in Toronto and has an Israeli father, spent her early years in both Canada and Israel, and her first language is Hebrew. “My family’s moshav, Even Yehuda (just outside Netanya) was and remains a central part of my life,” she said.

She moved to Israel in 1995 and earned a master’s degree from Hebrew University of Jerusalem in international relations and diplomacy. She spent several years in the Jerusalem mayor’s office, working on community engagement projects, and moved back to Toronto in 2006.

The Liberal stance on Israel dovetails with her own philosophy, she said.

“The policy of the Liberal Party as it stands today is that a negotiated agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be in the best interest of both societies, and I am in complete agreement,” she said. “I think that Israelis have the right to be safe and secure within their own borders. I also think that Palestinian society should have an opportunity to come to the table and negotiate as well.”

Saks has been a committee member of the New Israel Fund of Canada (NIF), and said those who fear the organization leans too far left should examine its mandate, which is to “support Israeli society and uphold its Declaration of Independence, which were the founding values of the country.”

The NIF’s goals are in fact “in very close alignment with Liberal values,” she said.

“If we want to push back against BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign against Israel], then we want to show that Israelis do care about having a strong, democratic and socially just society. If we can show that, what better way to push back against BDS and the underlying voices of antisemitism that come with it?” she asked.

Running an election campaign during a pandemic is a challenge, but Saks says it was crucial to hold the byelection now so constituents would be represented as the number of COVID cases climb again.

Elections Canada is working with the candidates to ensure that voting can be done safely, she said.

Saks is not concerned that she could be engaged in a second campaign soon after this one should the minority Liberal government be defeated in a non-confidence motion.

Reflecting on the years she lived in Israel, she noted she had experience with the country going to the polls multiple times.

“An election is not something to be afraid of,” she said. “An election is an opportunity to highlight your commitment to the values and the policies that have been put forward and to encourage voters to use their ballot to let us know what they want.”

MP Levitt Quits Politics to Take Over FSWC

Aug. 5, 2020 –

Toronto-area Liberal Member of Parliament Michael Levitt has announced he is retiring from politics to become president and CEO of Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center (FSWC).

Levitt has represented the riding of York Centre since 2015, when he defeated Conservative Mark Adler. He was re-elected in last year’s federal vote. His final day as an MP will be Sept. 1.

In a message to his constituents posted on Facebook, Levitt said the job of MP in Ottawa took a toll on his personal life.

“It hasn’t been without consequence to those I love most, and while it is an incredible privilege to serve the people of York Centre, I know deep down that now is the time for me to put family first and come back home, both physically and mentally,” he said.

Despite that, he said he “loved every minute” of political life. “…it has been the adventure of a lifetime.”

Among a handful of Jewish MPs, Levitt chaired the Canada-Israel Interparliamentary Group; the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development; and the Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on International Human Rights.

He will replace Avi Benlolo as head of the FSWC. No reason was given for Benlolo’s departure from the organization earlier this summer.

“FSWC is excited to welcome Michael Levitt as President and CEO,” the group’s chair, Fred Waks, said in a press release. “As the Member of Parliament for York Centre, Michael is deeply rooted in the community and his work in the fields of foreign affairs and human rights has garnered him respect from advocates at home and abroad. His distinguished career advocating for human rights, and his support for Israel and the fight against antisemitism, bring a high level of leadership and profile to our organization. We could not be more excited for the future.”

As an MP, Levitt frequently spoke out on Israel and issues of concern to Canada’s Jews, co-sponsoring a 2018 bill to make May of each year Canadian Jewish Heritage Month.

He was visible when Canada said it would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism, and he often addressed anti-Jewish incidents in the country.

But Levitt found himself on the defensive last autumn when Ottawa abruptly changed its vote on a resolution at the United Nations to oppose Israel, which filed a diplomatic complaint against Canada.

Levitt was also a member of the Raoul Wallenberg Parliamentary Caucus on Human Rights. Before entering politics, he helped found the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee.

In the FSWC statement, Levitt said he plans “to continue the organization’s proud legacy and the work I’ve done over the past five years in fighting antisemitism and promoting human rights, including bringing a renewed focus to the issue of systemic racism in Canada and how we can work together to address it.”

His appointment earned praise from former justice minister and international human rights advocate Irwin Cotler, who said Levitt’s “extensive experience and expertise dovetail perfectly with the mission and purpose of [FSWC], acting on the universal lessons of the Holocaust – combating racism and antisemitism and safeguarding Israel and the Jewish people.”

According to iPolitics, Levitt’s departure will trigger the first byelection of the current Parliament and will be the first during the COVID pandemic.

– CJR Staff