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Sunday, October 29, 2023

New wave of Quebec mayors is ready to push an agenda — and push back

Évelyne Beaudin says after becoming mayor of Sherbrooke, Que., she decided her office needed a revamp.

“It was men’s furniture for a very tall person, that were mayors before me,” the 35-year-old says while stretching her arms out wide to illustrate.

So she swapped the existing mayor’s desk, which she found “impractical,” for a more compact model with two computer screens on adjustable arms.

“Now I have a desk I can lift and I have a chair I can sit [in] and look like a normal person.”

In 2021, Beaudin became the first female mayor ↗ in Sherbrooke’s 169-year history, part of a youth wave ↗ that swept the city halls of five of Quebec’s biggest municipalities.

Along with Beaudin, two other millennials — Catherine Fournier, 31, of Longueuil, and Stéphane Boyer, 35, of Laval — and two who are just slightly older — Bruno Marchand, 51, in Quebec City and France Bélisle, 45, in Gatineau — have all shown their willingness to take the lead on big social issues including housing ↗, climate change and public transit ↗.

‘I think the city level is where you really change the world,’ says Mayor Évelyne Beaudin from her office in Sherbrooke’s historic city hall. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Montreal was a bit ahead of the wave, electing Valérie Plante, now 49, in 2017 and re-electing her in 2021.

WATCH | New wave of Quebec mayors is spurring change: 

Meet the millennials running three major Quebec cities — and doing it differently

Featured VideoThe mayors of Laval, Longueuil, and Sherbrooke, Que., all age 35 and under, are changing the way cities are run and challenging the provincial government along the way.

“It’s like all of a sudden this new generation, new approach, came to power and really changed the landscape and the way municipal politics is done — or can be done,” said La Presse columnist Yves Boisvert.

He notes that up until recently, those who led cities were mostly male, came from the business community or had been groomed by local chambers of commerce.

That’s changed, said Boisvert.

“This new generation arrives with a more social approach, more progressive, and they see the role of a city or a town or a municipality in a very different way.”

Boisvert says that in the past, mayors of mid-sized cities were more cautious in their dealings with those in power in Quebec City — because they depend on them for funding or approving projects.

Not this current group.

“They raise the issues, they oppose political decisions,” said Boisvert.

Gatineau mayor France Bélisle, left, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, third from left, Longueuil Mayor Catherine Fournier, centre, Laval Mayor Stéphane Boyer, third from right, and Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand, second from right, at a housing summit in Laval in August, 2022. (Charles Contant/CBC)

Add to the mix a relatively weak opposition at the National Assembly — the governing CAQ holds 89 out of 125 seats — and the mayors are increasingly serving as a political counterweight on the provincial scene.

“These mayors, in many respects, are the new opposition,” said Boisvert. “The real Official Opposition to the government.”

Stéphane Boyer, 35, mayor of Laval

In September, Quebec’s public security minister, François Bonnardel, came to Laval, a booming suburb north of Montreal, to announce $20 million over five years to help the city’s police service fight gun violence, a priority issue for Mayor Boyer.

But when it was his turn at the mic, Boyer spoiled the photo op, characterizing the money as “too little, too late” and “unfair” for the citizens of Laval, compared to what neighbouring Montreal was getting for the same problem.

As the TV cameras rolled and Bonnardel stood silently by, the mayor continued, declaring, “The life of a Laval citizen is not worth less than that of a Montrealer.”

At the podium, Laval Mayor Stéphane Boyer called the $20-million pledge by Quebec Public Security Minister François Bonnardel, on Boyer’s right, to hire more police officers, ‘too little, too late.’ (Pascal Robidas/Radio-Canada)

Asked about his remarks that day, Boyer says he had tried to make his case behind closed doors to the province, to no avail.

“I think people were expecting me to go in front of the camera and say, ‘Yes, I’m happy, thank you,’ but in reality I wasn’t, because I didn’t think it was fair for Laval,” said Boyer.

“It was important for me to stay true,” he said. “I’m not here to bullshit people.”

Boyer says he is not office to make enemies with the provincial government — but municipalities like his are increasingly on the front lines of challenges that demand fast action and funding.

Challenges like homelessness, which Boyer says was not a major issue in Laval just three years ago but is now increasingly widespread.

The mayor says while it can sometimes seem like cities are always begging for money, it’s because they see the problems up close and want to solve them.

“[When] I receive a call, literally a mother crying on the phone having nowhere to go, it’s heartbreaking,” he said.

He says the cost of housing in his city has become so high even he, with his mayor’s salary of $100,000, is hesitating to take the plunge.

The mayor of Laval, Stéphane Boyer and mayor of Longueuil, Catherine Fournier, pose for a photo in Longueuil, Que., Monday June 27, 2022. (Stéphane Blais/The Canadian Press)

“I’m looking to buy,” said Boyer, “but even myself with my girlfriend, I’m like, ‘Hey, $600,000, it’s a lot of money.'”

“I’m not saying that I can’t afford it, but do I want to spend that much money for a house?”

Catherine Fournier, 31, mayor of Longueuil

Catherine Fournier says the spacious mayor’s office she inherited at Longueuil city hall is bigger than her apartment. She even jokingly proposed to her colleagues that they turn it into a big shared workspace.

“It’s [way] too much for just me,” she said.

Mayor Catherine Fournier in her office at Longueuil City Hall. Fournier says ‘It’s not just about age. It’s about how we do politics.’ (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

Fournier says she didn’t know much about municipal politics before becoming the Parti Québécois MNA for Longueuil’s Marie-Victorin riding at 24, the youngest woman to ever be elected to the National Assembly.

But after spending time at community events as a provincial politician, she got the sense she could make a bigger difference in residents’ lives if she was their mayor.

“I think municipal politics is more suited to my personality because I need action,” said Fournier.

Fournier thinks the group of young mayors represents something new in municipal leadership: “It’s not just about age. It’s about how we do politics.”

She says they’re increasingly working together to advance issues of common interest, instead of each thinking about their own city’s interests.

“We have a bigger balance of power with the Quebec government,” said Fournier.

Longueuil Mayor Catherine Fournier, who was once a Parti Québécois MNA, with Quebec Premier François Legault at Longueuil’s aviation college. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

One of those issues is making cities more resilient to the effects of climate change.

Recently, Fournier pledged to preserve 21 per cent of Longueuil’s territory as green space in perpetuity — a major commitment ↗ for a city that owes its growth, in large part, to urban sprawl.

At the announcement, with local MNA and cabinet minister Ian Lafrenière in attendance, Fournier pushed the Quebec government to change expropriation laws to help cities lower the cost of acquiring green space.

“If Quebec isn’t ready to have the political courage [to do it], I hope it will be ready to loosen its purse strings to help cities like Longueuil,” she said.

Fournier doesn’t like the term opposition when it comes to the mayors’ relationship with the province, saying they’re dependent on Quebec City in terms of funding and powers, so they’re “condamnés à s’entendre,” forced to get along.

But she says while their approach is collaborative, they aren’t afraid to take their message to the media to apply more pressure, if necessary.

“We know what we need, so we’re not afraid to say it,” she said.

Évelyne Beaudin, 35, mayor of Sherbrooke

In May, Évelyne Beaudin won the Union of Quebec Municipalities’ award recognizing the contributions of a municipal elected official under the age of 35.

The prize sits in her office on a windowsill, along with an accordion (she plays) and a wooden carving of the word vélo (she’s an avid cyclist) with the “o” in the shape of a heart.

Beaudin says when she first started following municipal politics in Sherbrooke, there was a much different vibe at city hall.

“I looked at the municipal council, and it was all older people and mostly men,” she said. “So when they were talking, I did not recognize myself in them.”

Mayor Évelyne Beaudin speaks to reporters in Sherbrooke during this summer’s flooding in the Eastern Townships, which forced some residents to evacuate their homes. (Brigitte Marcoux/Radio-Canada)

Like Fournier, she also downplays the idea of the young cohort of mayors being an opposition to the provincial government but acknowledges her relationship with the premier and his municipal affairs minister has had its ups and downs.

“It depends on the subject,” she said, pointing to the province’s recent decision to nearly double university tuition for out-of-province students.

Beaudin has urged the CAQ government to exclude Bishop’s University, in Sherbrooke’s Lennoxville borough, from the planned fee hike, saying it could have a “fatal impact” on the anglophone institution, which draws about 30 per cent of its students from other Canadian provinces.

The mayor, who was once a candidate for the now-defunct sovereignist party Option Nationale, says she supports the CAQ government’s efforts to defend the French language, but she doesn’t see the 700 or so out-of-province students at Bishop’s as a threat.

Beaudin says the situation illustrates how being a mayor is not just taking care of city business but also about acting as a local government, saying the future of Lennoxville is linked to the fate of the 180-year-old school.

“This kind of decision that has such a huge impact for our community requires that me, as a mayor, I have to speak,” she said. “I have to be listened to.”

The power of cities

Boyer says while the young mayors don’t have a group chat going, they do sometimes call or text each other for advice and to learn from each other’s mistakes.

Beaudin says part of their ability to work together is because they’re not divided along party lines.

“I don’t know what’s the political family of Stéphane and Bruno,” she said. “We just have the same issues in our cities and we go together and we agree and so we are strong.”

Sherbrooke Mayor Évelyne Beaudin, left, Quebec City Mayor Bruno Marchand, second from left, Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante, second from right and Gatineau Mayor France Bélisle take part in a panel called ‘A new international role for cities?’ at Montreal’s Council on Foreign Relations in April. (Ivanoh Demers/Radio-Canada)

Boisvert, the newspaper columnist, says the new mayors are adding another dimension to the role of municipal governments in Quebec, and voters seem receptive to the new generation taking the reins with a more forceful style.

“The definition of what a mayor is is not the same now than what it was 30 years ago,” said Boisvert. “It’s more complicated. It’s more challenging but it’s also more rewarding, because you can accomplish more.”

Michael Maren
Michael Maren
Former marine biologist who likes to spend as much time in the tropics as possible, due to a horrible time I once had in Alaska. Brrrr.

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