In a 2014 speech at the Knesset, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper vowed to stand with Israel “through fire and water.” Melissa Lantsman, then a staffer in the Conservative Party, heard Harper make that pledge and was affected by it.
Eight years later, Lantsman, 39, has become one of two deputies within the party—its No. 2 spot—and has assumed Harper’s pro-Israel mantle.
Lantsman, who was elected in September 2021, became one of the Conservative Party’s deputy opposition leaders just a year later, which means that if opposition leader Pierre Poilievre wins the next election, she will be second-in-command, or at least third.
Prior to her election, Lantsman worked in public relations. Before that, she had long been involved in politics.
She first volunteered for the local campaign of Tina Molinari, a Progressive Conservative, in 1999.
“My parents encouraged me to do volunteer work in the community, and I didn’t have the stomach to do the old-age home, like most of my friends,” Lantsman told JNS. “I shudder at the sight of blood or sick people.”
Then a young, informed voter, Lantsman chose Molinari’s campaign, having liked what she read about it. And conservative politics, she said, felt like home, with like-minded people.
‘It was always going to be something I intended to do’
In December 2003, the federal Conservative Party was created, unifying Canada’s two right-of-center parties: the Progressive Conservatives and Reform Party. (Though on the provincial level, the Progressive Conservatives still exist.) In the 2000s, Lantsman continued working or volunteering for conservative politicians, including in 2007 for the campaign of Progressive Conservative parliamentarian Peter Shurman.
From 2011-12, she served as director of communications to Harper, and in 2018, as chief spokeswoman for the election campaign of Ontario Premier Doug Ford.
She worked as vice president of national public affairs at a communications firm, Enterprise Canada, from 2020 to 2021, right before she tossed her hat in to be parliamentarian. Lantsman saw the chance to leap into elected office when her predecessor, Peter Kent, for whom she once worked, announced that he would not run again.
“It was always going to be something I intended to do, and it became a reality in the place in which I grew up, Thornhill,” she told JNS. (The Toronto suburb has Canada’s largest concentration of Jews—nearly 30% of residents, or about 35,000 Jews.)
After years of offering political advice that clients did not always take and seeing decisions made of which she disapproved, Lantsman decided that “the best way to change those decisions was to put my name on a ballot and be in that room,” she told JNS.
She credits her ability to seize those opportunities to the sacrifices her family made.
Lantsman’s parents immigrated to Canada in the 1970s via Israel from the former Soviet Union—now, modern-day Odessa, Ukraine. An uncredentialed engineer, her father drove a cab to make ends meet. He didn’t have much English and couldn’t go back to school with a young son and daughter in tow. Her mother was a chartered accountant, who completed school in Canada.
Her grandfather ran one of the Toronto Jewish community’s iconic establishments, My Zaidy’s Bakery, which had begun as a bagel stand in Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market.
Lantsman grew up in what she calls a “hardcore Zionist” home. “My parents decided to make the move to Israel so that they could succeed in a world that was different than the Soviet Union, which saw them as lesser. That was never lost in our household,” she told JNS. “We lived in a country where you didn’t have to light Sabbath candles behind a curtain, and you didn’t have to hide matzah in the floorboards when celebrating ritual Judaism.”
She has held several volunteer roles over the past two decades that reflect that heritage she celebrates: president of the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students, Hasbara fellow, Birthright Israel leader, and national board member of the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee and of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.
“From a strong Jewish upbringing to a strong Jewish community involvement in all kinds of different organizations, it is very hard to separate myself from the way I was brought up,” Lantsman told JNS.
‘Where I come from’
Not only did Lantsman volunteer for a string of Jewish organizations, but the leading Canadian politician told JNS that she studies every morning with Rabbi Mendel Kaplan of Chabad Flamingo in Thornhill “to make sure that despite all of the distractions of politics, I know where I come from, and it helps me with where I’m going to go.”
She proudly cites her party’s support for Israel as always being “shoulder to shoulder” and being reliable in efforts to combat antisemitism. She told JNS that the Liberal Party used to be a reliable supporter of Israel and Jews, but that is no longer the case.
Liberal colleagues claimed to support the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism and “then immediately accepted Jenica Atwin into their party, after she called Israel an ‘apartheid’ state,” said Lantsman.
In August 2022, the Liberals were criticized after writing a check for $130,000 Canadian to Laith Marouf, ostensibly for anti-racism training. But Marouf had been sharing antisemitic comments on social media.
Lantsman said that the Liberals dragged their feet on rectifying the issue and haven’t taken responsibility for “funding this violent antisemitism.”
In recent weeks, the Liberals pledged an additional $100 million (Canadian) to United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), after having already given the agency hundreds of millions since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took office in 2015. UNRWA has often been criticized for being complicit in terror tunnels beneath its schools and inculcating Palestinian children with antisemitism.
Lantsman was proud to be part of the Harper administration, which ended funding to UNRWA, “so that Canadian tax dollars wouldn’t fund the murder of Jews in Israel.”
“You can see various instances where Liberals have moved away from an unequivocal support of Israel, while the Conservative Party still stands with Israel,” she said. “This is a case of not being able to tell right from wrong, or good versus evil. More than that, it’s choosing popularity over principle.”
In a glaring example of blurring the lines between right and wrong, she noted that the Liberal leader implied in February 2022 that his political opposition supports haters.
“Conservative Party members can stand with people who wave swastikas,” Trudeau said in a parliamentary discussion on the country-wide trucker convoy that began in January 2022 to protest COVID-19 mandates.
“I am a strong, Jewish woman, a member of this house and a descendant of Holocaust survivors,” Lantsman fired back in what would become a much-publicized exchange.
“I have never been singled out, and I have never been made to feel less. Except for today, when the prime minister accused me of standing with swastikas,” she added. “I think he owes me an apology. I’d like an apology. And I think he owes an apology to all members of this house.”
The prime minister has yet to walk back on his statement.
‘How I feel about a particular topic’
Lantsman plans to fight for a long list of issues that aren’t necessarily Jewish causes as well, she told JNS.
Those include the affordability crisis, a stronger Canadian stance on terrorism, protecting religious freedoms and freedom of the press.
She finds press reports, which note that she is the first Jewish and openly gay person to serve as a Conservative Parliamentarian, “not malicious, but lazy and callous.”
“Some in the media think that putting a descriptor of the religion I follow or sexual orientation will give the reader a shortcut to how I feel about a particular topic,” she said, noting that she checks many other boxes, too.
“I’m young, successful. I was a female executive. I’m a Zionist. I’m the child of immigrants. I’m educated. I’m trilingual. Those are descriptors I think they could use,” she told JNS.
“‘This is Bob. He’s a straight, white male.’ You don’t see that. This is indicative of a world that has gone ‘woke,’” she added. “In order to have something to say, you have to be part of some group, rather than what you’ve done, earned, espoused or been unapologetic about defending for years.”