MONTREAL - A government employee described by Liberal Irwin Cotler as his "shadow MP" working on the federal payroll has offered some clues about his job and his publicly funded salary.
Cotler has raised concerns that Saulie Zajdel, the Conservative candidate he defeated in last year's election, is earning a government paycheque while trying to undermine him in his Montreal riding.
The Conservatives initially refused to discuss Zajdel's duties at all — let alone his salary. After several months, Heritage Minister James Moore shared some details, explaining that Zajdel works in his Montreal office as a non-partisan liaison with local multiethnic communities.
Now, new details have been emerging about Zajdel's work.
He spoke publicly in Cotler's riding about Canada's relationship with Israel; he attended some events with Prime Minister Stephen Harper including a happy-hour pub stop; and he revealed he earns less than the "six digits" he hopes for.
Zajdel remarked on his salary during the prime minister's visit to Montreal, a trip that included an announcement a few hundred metres outside Cotler's Mount Royal riding last week.
He has declined multiple requests for an interview but he spoke more candidly during a Harper event where a Canadian Press reporter, wearing a media badge, asked him during a casual conversation about his federal paycheque.
"Oh, (it's) not as much as I want it to be," Zajdel quipped. When asked how much he'd like to earn, he replied: "Something in the six digits and it's not that."
Zajdel was travelling with journalists on a media bus during Harper's visit to Montreal. He was asked by other reporters about his job as the event was wrapping up, but rushed out of the room without answering the questions.
Zajdel, part of Harper's entourage during last Friday's visit, joined the prime minister at a pub in Old Montreal where they met with supporters.
Cotler first expressed concern last fall about his ex-rival performing MP-like duties in his riding. He said he feared that Zajdel was going around the riding, promising elected officials that he would help them secure federal grants and services.
Cotler's complaint followed reports of mysterious phone calls to his constituents that suggested he was on the verge of retiring.
Zajdel, meanwhile, has remained active in the riding since starting his government job in the fall.
He spoke about his department's programs a few weeks ago during a lecture at the Cummings Jewish Centre for Seniors in Mount Royal, which has a large Jewish population.
Zajdel's one-hour talk, attended by around 25 people, was advertised in local newspapers and on the Cummings website as "How the Federal Government Relates to Israel."
He began his talk by discussing his department's heritage-related services, unrelated to Israel, according to two people in the room.
Then he told the seniors' audience he was going off the record, so they could have a private chat about Canada's relationship with Israel.
Zajdel shared his personal opinions on the subject, says a Cummings employee who organizes the centre's weekly lectures.
"Because the topic was Canada's relation to Israel, he didn't speak as a minister of the federal government," said Paula Wasserman, adding that he drew a pretty good turnout.
"He spoke totally off the record — his personal opinion. It was personal, it wasn't as a representative of the federal government."
The Harper Tories have been among the staunchest international supporters of Israel and have played up that policy while wooing ridings, especially in Toronto and Montreal, with large Jewish populations. Cotler's riding is a prime example.
But Wasserman said Zajdel made it clear several times during the lecture that his comments on Israel were his own opinion as an individual — not as an employee of Canadian Heritage.
She said he didn't speak about the Conservative party, partisan politics or his hopes of becoming a member of Parliament for the area.
When asked why there were ads billing the event as a speech about Israel in the first place, she said the choice of words had likely been accidental or "twisted around."
Since taking on the government job last fall, Zajdel has also met with the riding's mayors to explain the grants and programs offered by Canadian Heritage.
One mayor who attended the presentation said that while it was unusual to receive such an invitation from a government employee, he noted that Zajdel didn't raise partisan politics.
After initially refusing to comment on Zajdel's job, the Conservative government broke its silence earlier this month with Moore himself coming out in defence of his employee.
The heritage minister said his employee's position has "no political involvement" and is "entirely a ministerial staff function." Moore said Zajdel works as a full-time liaison between his office and Montreal's cultural communities.
The Tories covet Mount Royal as a potential foothold in Canada's second-largest city, where Conservatives have not won a seat in a quarter-century.
Zajdel finished some 2,300 votes behind Cotler in the election, the best showing by a non-Liberal in Mount Royal since a Progressive Conservative candidate lost by 4,000 in 1984.
The riding, once represented by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, has been Liberal since 1940.
- with file from Peter Rakobowchuk in Montreal