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Quebec launches helpline, looks for other ways to stop politicians from quitting

Quebec Premier Francois Legault, left, and Federation Quebecois des Municipalites president Jacques Demers walk in at the FQM annual meeting, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press) Quebec Premier Francois Legault, left, and Federation Quebecois des Municipalites president Jacques Demers walk in at the FQM annual meeting, Friday, Sept. 29, 2023 in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot, The Canadian Press)
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Rivière-du-Loup, Que. -

The Quebec government says it is not ruling out punitive measures for people who harass elected officials, as the province strives to stop an exodus of politicians from municipal jobs.

At least 741 of Quebec's 8,000 local politicians — almost 10 per cent — have quit since 2021. In a fall 2023 survey of Quebec mayors and city councillors conducted by the Union des municipalités du Québec, 74 per cent reported experiencing harassment or intimidation.

On Wednesday, the province's municipal affairs minister, Andrée Laforest, announced a new telephone helpline to connect officials and members of their families with psychological aid. She also hinted at forthcoming legislation that would include a mandatory online course for newly elected leaders to better equip them to handle some of the stressors of their roles.

And though the Criminal Code already empowers police forces to intervene in cases of threats or harassment, Laforest did not preclude additional penalties for offenders. "We're really going to encompass everything," she said.

Laforest attributed the current environment to the COVID-19 pandemic, when she said many people adopted poor behaviour behind their computer screens.

Julie Bourdon, mayor of Granby, Que., and a representative of the Union des municipalités du Québec, said in an interview Wednesday that concurrent housing and climate crises are only compounding elected officials' feelings of insecurity.

Rimouski, Que., Mayor Guy Caron is among those who say municipalities need more tools to handle hostile constituents. He said Wednesday he has faced aggressive protesters at municipal council meetings, including at one earlier this week during which he had to call police.

He noted, for example, that under current rules he would have to go to court to ban individuals from those meetings. "We're hoping for legislative measures," he said in an interview.

Quebec says the new telephone helpline is part of a multi-year plan to improve working conditions for local leaders, and Wednesday's announcement came just one week after the abrupt resignation of the mayor of Gatineau rattled the province.

France Bélisle cited a toxic political climate, including death threats from members of the public, in her decision to step down from the post. "I think It's urgent to have a conversation about the climate if we want a continuation of public service," Bélisle warned.

In a phone interview Wednesday, Vaudreuil-Dorion, Que., town councillor Jasmine Sharma called the helpline and potential training course "one positive step. But it's not enough" to rectify intolerable work environments, she said.

The suburban Montreal councillor is part of a group of around 30 municipal politicians from across Quebec who came together over the issue of workplace harassment and intimidation. The group started as a mutual support network for victims but this year has begun advocating for action to address the situation.

Their focus is on problematic behaviour among elected officials.

The helpline and training, Sharma said, "essentially (put) the onus on the victim of this intimidation to seek help, and it doesn't do anything to actually resolve the problem or the underlying issues."

Among her group's goals are codes of conduct for municipal officials, greater access to mediation services and the creation of an ombudsperson position to assist elected officials with complaints about colleagues' conduct.

These measures, Sharma said, would not only help stop the mass resignation of local politicians, but also encourage a new batch of Quebecers to run for office in the next municipal elections in 2025.

— With files from Thomas MacDonald in Montreal.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024.

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