Friday 29 April 2011

Prime Minister Harper rallies Mount Royal riding

I was part of history this morning as Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid the ultimate compliment to Saulie Zajdel, his Conservative Party star candidate in one of the country's greatest Liberal strongholds. Only three days before the federal election, Harper chose to visit the Mount Royal riding and address a large and enthusiastic gathering at the Ben Weider Jewish Community Centre in Snowdon.

This marked the first time in the five years Harper (left) has served as prime minister that he visited Mount Royal. "He certainly would not have done so unless there was a feeling we have a chance to win this riding," Gary Shapiro, a longtime riding executive, told me.

Amos Sochaczevski, who owns The Suburban Newspaper, echoed those sentiments. He also told the crowd that despite the fact he is personal friends with Mount Royal Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, he is firmly behind Zajdel and the Tories. To thunderous applause he thanked Harper for being the best prime minister Canada has ever had in terms of standing up for Israel.

Zajdel, a Montreal city councillor for 23 years, has been campaigning so hard that he lost his voice. He nonetheless still rallied the crowd, introduced other candidates such as Larry Smith (Lac St. Louis), Agop Everklian (Pierrefonds-Dollard), Neil Drabkin (Westmount-Ville Marie),
in the room and then welcomed Harper on stage.
(Zajdel above and Everklian, Smith and Hampstead Mayor Bill Steinberg pictured at the left)

"Saulie Zajdel is campaigning right to the last drop of his voice," Harper said in his opening remarks.

Wearing an open shirt, a wireless microphone and glancing occasionally at a teleprompter Harper told the audience why it is necessary to elect a majority Conservative government. "The minority Parliament did not focus on the economy," he said. "Canada cannot go back to another minority Parliament like that."

Harper picked apart his opposition, warning of dire consequences if a coalition involving the NDP, the Liberals and the Bloc were to take power. He took questions from select media at the end, most of whom seemed quite confrontational.

"If you have another minority government, will you resign?" one reporter asked.

Harper replied that if his party wins the most seats he will accept that as another mandate to lead the country.

Can the Tories do the unthinkable and take Mount Royal? I have never seen Irwin Cotler work so hard, blazing the campaign trail like a youngster at the age of 71. He and his team have taken nothing for granted. Zajdel told me he feels good.

It should be a very interesting Monday night.

Tuesday 26 April 2011

Plattsburgh really welcomes Quebecers

PQ leader Pauline Marois and Bloc boss Gilles Duceppe will be pleased to hear that our nearby American New York suburb of Plattsburgh wants to make its French Canadian visitors feel more at home. Garry Douglas, head of the North County Chamber of Commerce, says that as important as attracting Quebecers is making their visit as enjoyable and welcoming as possible, be it shopping or enjoying the day at the beach at Ausable State Park (left).

"All of our area hospitality and retail businesses need to step up their efforts to make our Quebec friends comfortable, including more bilingual menus and signs, more French skills among customer service staff, and zero tolerance for any impatience, prejudice or poor attitudes toward our neighbours,” Douglas noted. “Walt Disney said that people spend money where and when they feel good. Let's make them feel very good about spending money, supporting jobs and generating sales tax revenue here in the North Country."

The Chamber and its Adirondack Coast Visitors Bureau recently conducted a survey of more than 250 tourism-related businesses, verifying the importance of Canadian visitors to area businesses and the economy.

"We certainly know that Canadian spending in our area is of great importance and has been growing," states Douglas, “but we decided it was time to take a snapshot of just how important it is and what the trends and opportunities may be, especially as we refine our Montreal marketing plans for this summer."

The Chamber surveyed more than 250 tourism-related businesses, with the results revealing that a strong majority depends on Canadians for 20 percent or more of their business. Almost a fifth depends on Canadians for more than 50 percent of their business. Eighty eight percent rate the importance of Canadians on their businesses as important or very important. Furthermore, eighty eight percent reported an increase in Canadian business in 2010 compared to 2009.

"These numbers confirm that we are enjoying the benefits of both a strong Canadian economy and the fact that the two currencies are remaining near par," says Douglas. "And they reinforce our belief that the opportunity is ripe to attract even more visitors and spending from north of the border this year, especially over the summer."

“We expect another strong summer in respect to Canadian visitors,” added Michele Powers, the vice-president of marketing. “When you combine the strength of the Canadian dollar, New York State’s recent four percent tax exemption for all clothing purchases under $55, and an aggressive marketing campaign, the outlook is good.”

We are so lucky as Montrealers to have the city of Plattsburgh so near. Only a 64 kilometre drive that can be made in a little more than an hour, as long as the line-up at the Lacolle border crossing is not too long, here you have access to stores and restaurants that we cannot find in Montreal: Target (soon to be here), JC Penny, Pac Sun, Hollister, Debs, Victoria’s Secret, Bed Bath and Beyond, TJ Maxx, Price Chopper, Hannford’s, Friendly’s, Perkins, 99, the Ground Round, the fabulous Butcher Block and much more.

With our dollar at $1.05, compared to the American greenback, folks are racing to Plattsburgh for day trips. If your schedule permits, I recommend you follow my formula and try to stay a few days. We have always enjoyed the accommodations at the Comfort Inn and Suites which was devastated by a horrible fire more than two years ago. The owners spent $11 million to rebuild and did a magnificent job.

I have been going to Plattsburgh since my childhood. The place to go in those days was Pyramid Mall. It was not anything that special, but it still offered great deals. As our dollar went up and down Plattsburgh’s appeal weakened a bit. In the meantime, Pyramid Mall gave way to Champlain Centre down the road. This is a pretty impressive shopping centre. The addition of Target a few years back really added to its appeal.

Oh, I remember the days when I would go down for the day with friends. We’d rush through the aisles of TJ Maxx, buying jeans, socks and underwear and meet up with other Quebecers in the washrooms as we cut off labels and tried to squeeze into several layers of clothes.

I met countless Montrealers on my most recent trip. They simply told the border guards what they spent and if they had to pay duty, so be it. By staying for a few nights, we were legally allowed a certain amount so everything was out in the open.

Of course, the newest attraction to Plattsburgh is its airport. Resembling more of a bus station (see right), it is the home to four airlines and great deals on flights. Montrealers use it regularly, for the rates are far superior to certain destinations than what Air Canada or West Jet will charge you.