Irwin Cotler has something the Harper Tories covet – his riding.
And they are aggressively going after it, using a public research firm to identify voters in the veteran Liberal MP's Montreal riding of Mount Royal. The calls have caused headaches for Mr. Cotler, fuelling rumours that he is poised to resign and that a by-election is imminent.
"I am alive, well and working," the former federal justice minister said.
For Mr. Cotler, this confusion means his heavy agenda, including justice and foreign affairs committee work, has been "overtaken" by persistent questions about his future. He has formally appealed to House of Commons Speaker Andrew Scheer to rule that the Tory campaign is out of line.
For the Tories, however, it is simply business as usual as they dip into their war chest to identify voters in anticipation of the next election. A Conservative official confirmed to The Globe and Mail that the party is trying to identify the vote in Mr. Cotler's riding, which it does on a continuing basis across the country. In this case, a company called Campaign Research that has been linked to Ontario and federal Conservatives is behind the calls.
"If the Liberals spent as much time doing voter ID instead of complaining about political parties doing their work, they'd be in better shape than they are today," the official said.
He said the "script" does not mention a by-election. However, if people ask why the party is phoning, callers say "there are rumours that Irwin Cotler may resign causing a by-election," the Conservative official said.
"It's an honest answer to the question. There have been rumours for a long time that Cotler is going to step down," he said.
Mr. Cotler has been in office since 1999, having taken a sabbatical from teaching at McGill faculty of law to run in a by-election. The view then was that he would serve one or two terms and return to academia, which has led to speculation every election that he would not run again.
So he is used to denying the rumours. But this time it's different. The rumours are not going away, as there is a growing view among Tories in Montreal that Mr. Cotler is vulnerable.
Just before the spring election, a leaked document from Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's office listed Mount Royal as one of the top 10 "Target Ridings – Very Ethnic" featured in a presentation by a Kenney staffer. The riding is ethnically diverse, with a significant Jewish population – and Mr. Kenney has made a career of courting the ethnic vote.
In addition, three days before the election, the Prime Minister visited the riding. Mr. Cotler noted that this was the first time that Stephen Harper had been to Mount Royal, long considered a Liberal stronghold.
"The riding is coveted because it is the riding of Pierre Elliott Trudeau," Mr. Cotler noted, referring to its storied Liberal past.
Mount Royal "has been a Liberal stronghold and it has always voted Liberal. It basically represents a core riding on the island of Montreal," Mr. Cotler said.
The Tories want and need ridings in Montreal, especially after their poor result in Quebec in the May election. And although they did not prevail in Mount Royal, they made inroads. Mr. Cotler said he lost a significant portion of the Jewish vote to the Conservatives and their staunch pro-Israel views. No surprise then that Mr. Cotler has observed that many of the calls being made by the research firm are to Jewish households.
In addition, Saulie Zajdel, the Conservative candidate who ran against him, is working for the Heritage Minister as a regional aide. That gives him the ability to maintain a high profile in the riding. Clearly, the Tories are just waiting to pounce.
But what really frustrates Mr. Cotler is that his work is being overshadowed by the bogus rumour about a resignation. Recently, he called a news conference to talk about the plight of Egyptian blogger Maikel Nabil, who was imprisoned after writing that the military was oppressing civilian protests.
Mr. Cotler, who is his international legal counsel, demanded the charges be dropped. But reporters were more interested in the constituency calls than the man who had become a symbol of the Egyptian Arab Spring.
"The calls are sexier," Mr. Cotler said with a resigned shrug.