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Quebec announces new psychological assistance for municipal representatives

Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest announces a environment program for municipalities, Thursday, February 8, 2024 in Scott, Que. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot) Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest announces a environment program for municipalities, Thursday, February 8, 2024 in Scott, Que. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot)
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Quebec Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest says she is not ruling out punitive measures against people who attack elected officials.

This comes as she announced the introduction of a psychological assistance program for elected officials and their families.

At the same time, Laforest hinted that there could be some forthcoming legislative measures.

At a press conference Wednesday in Rivière-du-Loup in Bas-Saint-Laurent, the minister said she would not rule out punitive measures against those who behave unacceptably towards councillors and mayors.

Rimouski Mayor Guy Caron, who has faced aggressive protesters in the past, welcomed the announcement.

He points out that he cannot currently prohibit citizens from attending council meetings unless they go to court.

"We're hoping for legislative measures," he told The Canadian Press.

Psychological assistance

Laforest says Quebec will give more than $2 million to the Union des municipalités du Québec (UMQ) and the Fédération québécoise des municipalités (FQM) for aid, including a telephone help service linked to a psychologist.

"In the current difficult and sometimes hostile context in which elected officials carry out their duties, the UMQ is taking action and implementing measures to provide essential support to those who serve our communities," said Granby Mayor and UMQ treasurer Julie Bourdon. "As we all know, to take care of our world, we must also be able to take care of ourselves."

Laforest adds that in the first few months after being elected, officials will be given mandatory training "to equip them properly."

"Municipal elected officials, unlike city employees, have no access to this kind of service, so we had to act quickly," she said.

Resignations and difficulties

The announcement comes just days after the shocking resignation of Gatineau mayor France Bélisle, who received a wave of support and encouragement from mayors of other cities.

When announcing her resignation, Bélisle invited the Quebec government to reflect "on this exodus of municipal elected officials."

"I think we all need to be concerned about a public service that has fallen out of favour," she said.

Previously, former Chapais mayor Isabelle Lessard, who faced intense forest fires in her region, threw in the towel last November.

In October, Sherbrooke Mayor Évelyne Beaudin announced her temporary removal for health reasons on the advice of her doctor.

In early February, she also spoke of tensions at city council and undermining by the opposition.

In January 2023, Trois-Rivières Mayor Jean Lamarche also took a break for a few weeks due to an "unhealthy working climate" at city hall.

He said he even considered resigning.

In total, 741 of 8,000 elected municipal officials have left office since 2021.

In an open letter, Longueuil Mayor Catherine Fournier called for a change in "political culture."

Targeted by aggressive comments on social media, Fournier was placed under police protection last September.

She argues that elected officials should set an example as "it is not normal to see the toxic climate of intimidation that can reign in city halls... and in our parliaments."

Calls for parliamentary commission

On Friday, the Quebec Liberal Party (PLQ) called for a parliamentary commission to examine the issue of threats and incivility directed at elected officials, particularly in municipalities.

Laforest declined to comment Friday on whether a parliamentary commission would be set up to study the issue.

However, at the time of Bélisle's resignation, she maintained that the government "is doing its part to support elected officials in their duties."

On the X network, formerly known as Twitter, she added, "it's important that certain changes take place from within councils, with a sincere desire and for the benefit of citizens."

-- This report by The Canadian Press was first published in French on Feb. 28, 2024. 

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