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Following the money: Is Bay Street backing Thomas Mulcair?

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Anthony Munk is not your typical donor to the New Democratic Party. He serves as a director of Barrick Gold Corporation, the Canadian mining giant founded by his father, Peter Munk. Anthony is also a managing director at Onex Corporation, a massive Bay Street private equity investment firm and holding company.

In December, Anthony Munk donated $500 to NDP leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair. That same month, Munk also contributed $250 to Stephen Harper's Conservative Party of Canada.

Information on individual donors to Canada's political parties, and to the NDP leadership candidates, is made publicly available at the Elections Canada website. Mulcair's donor list is of particular interest, since he is a perceived frontrunner and because some have speculated that he would aim to move the NDP further to the right of the political spectrum, given that he was a Liberal cabinet minister in a right-wing Quebec provincial government.

What I found out about Mulcair's donors should be of interest to NDP members and to everyone watching and covering this leadership race. On a first scan of the list of contributors to Mulcair's campaign, one name jumped off the page: billionaire and Bay Street heavyweight Gerald W. Schwartz.

"Gerry" Schwartz was a co-founder of CanWest Global Communications and is the current CEO of Onex Corporation, where Munk serves as a managing director. Schwartz has an estimated net worth of $1 billion, and has been called "the face of Canadian capitalism" and "Canada's most influential person."

In the 1980s, Schwartz was a major donor and key figure for the Liberals, but also exerted influence on the Mulroney Conservative government. Stephen Clarkson describes Schwartz's intervention in the 1988 federal election in his classic study of the Liberal Party, The Big Red Machine:

"In Toronto, the prominent billionaire businessman Gerald Schwartz took charge of fundraising, pleading with executives that, while they might not like Turner's position on free trade, they should still shell out generously, lest the socialist NDP sneak up the middle to exert a controlling voice in a minority government."

A decade ago, Schwartz was a key fundraiser and backer for Paul Martin. Now, with the collapse of the Liberal Party and the rise of the NDP, it looks like he and some of his Bay Street friends are putting their money on Mulcair.

Schwartz and Munk were joined by a number of other Onex directors and associates in contributing to Mulcair's campaign. A number of them gave money on the same date, December 14, including Schwartz himself and Onex managing director Seth Mersky, who contributed $1,000. Two other Onex managing directors contributed shortly thereafter: David Mansell donated $600 on December 16, and Andrew Sheiner gave $500 on December 31. 

Onex Corporation is at the very heart of corporate and political power in Canada. Another Onex managing director, Nigel Wright, took a temporary leave from Onex in 2010 in order to serve as Stephen Harper's chief of staff.

Other investment bankers also donated to Mulcair, such as John Sherrington, Vice-Chairman of Scotia Capital, who chipped in $500 on December 16. The size of the financial donations may seem modest, but keep in mind that there is a limit of $1,200 per individual. The cluster of donations gives us cause to suppose a level of co-ordination.

Schwartz, as it happens, is also among the most prominent and influential backers in Canada of Israeli policies of militarism and occupation. 

Schwartz and his wife, Chapters-Indigo CEO Heather Reisman, founded the Heseg Foundation for Lone Soldiers, which provides money to cover tuition and living expenses for non-Israelis who serve in the Israeli army. Schwartz and Reisman have made very public their approval of aggressive and hawkish actions by the Israeli government. In 2006, the couple made headlines by abandoning their traditional support for the Liberals in favour of the Conservatives after Stephen Harper had given full-throated support to Israel's operation against Lebanon. Over 1,000 Lebanese civilians and one Canadian UN peacekeeper were killed in the bombing. Harper called Israel's actions "a measured response."

A number of prominent supporters of a Canadian Middle East policy that favours Israel also donated to Mulcair's campaign -- many on that very same date, December 14. This includes Joel Reitman, who co-founded the media and broadcasting company MIJO that launched the "rebrand Israel" campaign several years ago.

In 2008, Mulcair was quoted as saying he was "an ardent supporter of Israel in all situations and in all circumstances." On the leadership campaign trail, he has tried to defuse controversy by denying any bias on the Middle East and stating that he adheres to NDP policy on the issue. Mulcair's donors list would seem to cast doubt on these carefully delivered assurances of even-handedness on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

His list of contributors also hints at the potential realignments within the Canadian establishment. After the Liberals hit their historic nadir under Michael Ignatieff last election, it seems some of Bay Street's key players are happy to put their money on Mulcair.

Note: This piece is by no means a comprehensive analysis of donors to Mulcair's campaign, which includes others with ties to Onex and Bay Street -- executives, lawyers and so forth. Hopefully others in the media with more time and resources will examine this. There has already been investigation along these lines with other candidates; this case seems more remarkable and newsworthy, given the support of Schwartz and other high level directors and executives.

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