Quebec mayor, 23, shepherded her town through forest fires. Now she’s stepping down

Click to play video: 'Global News at 5:30 Montreal: Nov. 8'
Global News at 5:30 Montreal: Nov. 8
The Nov. 8, 2023 edition of Global News at 5:30 on Global Montreal. – Nov 8, 2023

After leading her small town through a historic and devastating wildfire season, one of Quebec’s youngest mayors is taking a step back from politics to take care of herself.

Isabelle Lessard, 23, was thrust into the spotlight last summer after raging forest fires forced the evacuation of hundreds of homes in Chapais, Que., about 715 kilometres northeast of Montreal.

In her resignation letter that she posted publicly on social media Wednesday, Lessard said her experience at the helm of the small town of 1,500 residents was “very enriching.”

Making the decision to leave was “extremely difficult,” she added.

“Unfortunately, the difficult weeks last June during the forest fires had significant consequences for my health and I must take the necessary time to heal,” Lessard wrote in her letter.

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After shepherding Chapais through one of the worst forest fire seasons on record, Lessard has been off the job since mid-September. She hoped to come back in full form, but explained that isn’t the case.

“However, realistically, from a medical and personal point of view, the best decision for my health as well as for the municipality of Chapais is for me to make way way for a new mayor,” Lessard wrote.

“I sincerely hope that my short stay will leave a positive mark despite the circumstances.”

The town of Chapais, Que., was hit hard by wildfires in June 2023. Ville de Chapais/Facebook

Lessard, who was acclaimed as mayor in 2021, will officially hand over the reins on Nov. 17 — approximately halfway through her mandate.

Global News reached out to Lessard, but did not yet hear back in time for publication. In an interview with The Canadian Press, the young mayor explained she felt unable to complete her term and that she is at risk of developing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

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Before she went on leave, Lessard says she was sleeping poorly and felt constantly stressed.

The resignation and public post by Lessard was met with support from other municipal and provincial leaders. Quebec’s union of municipalities (UMQ) said the outgoing elected official showed “remarkable leadership” throughout her mandate and especially during this summer’s crisis.

“Isabelle gave body and soul for her community, it is now her turn to take care of herself,” said UMQ president and Varennes Mayor Martin Damphousse.

Lessard not only has a bright future ahead of her, but her decision “seriously reminds us that municipal officials are, above all, human beings,” he said.

“The challenges and crises they face are increasingly complex and also show the importance of their role,” Damphousse said.

Click to play video: 'Forest fires in Northern Quebec prompt evacuations'
Forest fires in Northern Quebec prompt evacuations

The UMQ also says it is working toward a plan to ensure that elected officials can access employee assistance programs, particularly for psychological support.

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Québec solidaire co-spokesperson Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois tipped his cap to Lessard, saying she took on challenges in her job and underwent a huge ordeal alongside her community.

“I thank her for her work and wish her well-deserved rest,” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

with files from The Canadian Press

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