A Quebec mayor opens up about the ‘shocking’ threats politicians are facing

Click to play video: 'Quebec’s Bill 57 to impose fines for threatening elected officials'
Quebec’s Bill 57 to impose fines for threatening elected officials
WATCH: More political efforts are being made to better protect elected officials from threats, insults and harassment. A new government bill has been tabled to increase safety for people in office and put a stop to excessive abuse by the public. It's a measure to ensure that debate and criticism is done in a non-threatening manners. Global's Tim Sargeant reports. – May 2, 2024

Quebec’s plan to curb the often toxic climate that drives out local politicians is being welcomed by Montreal-area mayors who have long called for change.

Longueuil Mayor Catherine Fournier was placed under intermittent police protection last year and has received death threats over a years-long, controversial plan to cull local deer. Her predecessor was also the target of threats in 2020.

Bill 57, which was tabled at the provincial legislature in April, proposes stiff punitive measures for people who harass elected officials in Quebec. It comes as hundreds have left municipal jobs since the 2021 election.

If the proposed legislation becomes law, people who harass or threaten politicians could face a court injunction or a fine up to $1,500. It would also give police the power to impose a fine ranging from $50 to $500 on any person who disrupts a city council meeting with disorderly conduct.

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“It’s a measure that is important, that has been anticipated,” Fournier said of Bill 57 during legislative hearings Thursday. “That reassures lots of municipal officials.”

Fournier not only gave recommendations about the proposed law but also spoke of her own experiences including a recent incident that unfolded publicly.

Click to play video: 'Quebec launches new helpline for politicians after hundreds quit. Is it enough?'
Quebec launches new helpline for politicians after hundreds quit. Is it enough?

In March, Longueuil police arrested a woman who was later charged with having criminally harassed the mayor during a city council meeting that turned heated. The woman is not a resident of Longueuil.

“It’s shocking. It was the first time I received a threat in person,” Fournier said Thursday.

The woman in question was released with conditions and her case is now with the province’s Crown prosecutors. Police said at the time it was the fourth investigation they had opened involving the mayor.

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Fournier previously sat as a Parti Québécois and then Independent MNA before she left provincial politics. Throughout her career in public office, she said she has “unfortunately filed complaints with police several times.”

The 32-year-old also noted different incidents, ranging from how she has received an anonymous letter mentioning a gun to messages on social media that made her feel unsafe.

“You have to send a clear message: this isn’t acceptable,” Fournier said Thursday.

‘Something clearly needs to be done’

Fournier is far from the only local politician who has had such experiences.

Quebec’s union of municipalities conducted a survey on the topic in 2023 and found that 74 per cent of elected municipal officials reported experiencing harassment and intimidation. Since the October 2021 election, 741 out of 8,000 local politicians — or nearly 10 per cent — had quit.

Earlier this year, France Bélisle suddenly stepped down as mayor of Gatineau, citing a difficult climate for municipal politicians.

Bélisle said she had been witness to personal attacks that go beyond normal political criticism, including death threats from members of the public. Her decision to resign came down to preserving her health and her integrity.

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A week after Bélisle’s resignation in February, the province launched a hotline to help municipal politicians and their loved ones.

Click to play video: 'Calls for ‘cultural shift’ in municipal politics following Gatineau mayor’s resignation'
Calls for ‘cultural shift’ in municipal politics following Gatineau mayor’s resignation

Westmount Mayor Christina Smith said Thursday that “something clearly needs to be done” to fix the problem and stem the mass exodus of elected officials.

“The problem is when it turns into harassment and when it steps over the line and that’s not accepted in any work place anymore,” Smith said in an interview with Global News.

“This shouldn’t be the last place it is accepted.”

Smith, for her part, said she has a thick skin but the last straw came when her 11-year-old daughter was harassed on the street.

“It’s unacceptable and when people see it, they will never enter into the political realm if they think that’s what they are dealing with,” she said.

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Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest said last month she hoped Bill 57 would be adopted by June.

— with files from Global’s Tim Sargeant and The Canadian Press

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