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At her first town meeting as mayor of Chapais in Quebec’s James Bay region, Isabelle Lessard was publicly challenged by a former municipal councillor. “He said to me, ‘Young woman, do you really think you’re capable of running this town?” recalled Lessard.
“I answered, ‘Yes,’ but I was shaking inside,” she admitted.
Now 22, Lessard, currently Quebec’s youngest mayor, has completed the first year of her four-year mandate — demonstrating that she is capable of running the town of Chapais. (In 2013, Alexandre D. Nickner was 20 when he was elected mayor of Clermont, in MRC Abitibi-Ouest.)
She is part of a growing trend of young people entering the political arena in Quebec, eager to make their voices heard. And voters are responding, perhaps because they want a break from the cynicism that has become associated with politics. Other recently elected young mayors in the province include Laval’s Stéphane Boyer, 34, and Longueuil’s Catherine Fournier, 30.
All are members of the Commission des Jeunes Élues et Élus, a group of about 30 young mayors and city councillors from across the province who meet regularly over Zoom and in person.
“We ask for advice and support each other. We want to bring our youthful vision to the province,” Lessard said.
Located 41 kilometres west of Chibougamau, Chapais is a sleepy town with 1,600 inhabitants, many of whom are seniors. Those who are still working are mostly employed in the lumber industry. The town has one snack bar, one restaurant that closes early, and no local police force. A pair of police officers drive in from Chibougamau every day or two to keep an eye on the town.
Born and bred in Chapais, Lessard also teaches French at École secondaire Le Filon, the local high school she graduated from in 2017.
“When I went to this school, I never imagined I would be mayor of Chapais,” Lessard said after classes were over and before heading to her office at city hall. But when former mayor Steve Gamache stepped down in 2021 after three terms, no one came forward to replace him.
“There was a fear — what will happen if no one becomes involved in municipal politics?” said Lessard. So she put her name forward. Another candidate joined the race, but withdrew, and Lessard was acclaimed in November 2021.
“I wanted to be part of the change I wanted to see in Chapais,” Lessard explained.
Lessard was also motivated by her love for the town.
“People see Chapais as a town that’s remote and isolated. But the farther we are, the more freedom we have. Here, the air is pure. We take two steps and we’re in nature,” she said.
Lessard wants to bring even more fresh air to Chapais.
“We have some old mentalities here,” she said.
Within two months on the job at city hall, Lessard and her team managed to reach a collective agreement with the town’s blue-collar workers, following two years of negotiations. Lessard is also determined to make Chapais more ecological and inclusive.
Lessard is working to establish partnerships with the nearby Cree communities of Oujé-Bougoumou and Waswanipi.
“We have not had much of a relationship with the Cree communities,” she said. “We need to build closer economic and social ties.”
Before becoming a mayor and a teacher, Lessard worked at a seniors’ residence and a bank in Chibougamau, and studied massotherapy. She says she learns best on the job. This approach also applies to her political career.
“I had to learn how to be a politician,” she said. “Being in politics requires two things: discipline and patience. Nothing is quick in politics.”
Longtime city councillor Daniel Forgues, 81, says he enjoys working with Lessard, whom he has known since she was a baby and they were next-door neighbours.
“She’s not afraid to ask questions. She knows what’s going on everywhere in Chapais and she reads all the newspapers,” Forgues said.
Like the other students at École secondaire Le Filon, Jacob Harvey, 14, calls the mayor by her first name. Harvey appreciates that Lessard has not changed since becoming mayor.
“She used to come to the dépanneur where I worked. She’s young so she understands us. Because of her I might be interested in going into politics.”
What advice does Lessard have for young people like Harvey? The question makes her grin:
“Don’t let people tell you you can’t do something,” she said. “If it matters to you, go for it!”
At 22, Quebec’s youngest mayor aims to address ‘old mentalities’
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