The mayor of a Montreal suburb publicly revealed herself Tuesday as the victim of ex-Parti Québécois legislator Harold LeBel, who was sentenced to eight months in prison after sexually assaulting her in 2017 when they were both PQ members.
Catherine Fournier was a young rising star in the PQ after her December 2016 byelection win, but by March 2019 she had quit to sit as an Independent. She was elected mayor of Longueuil, Que., in November 2021 and left provincial politics.
“If I choose to speak now, it is to share my experience, to help other people benefit from what I have learned … hoping that something positive can finally emerge from these sad events,” Fournier said Tuesday in a message on Instagram.
Fournier, 31, had asked Quebec Superior Court Justice Serge Francoeur during a hearing in March to remove the publication ban that is standard on the identity of sexual assault complainants. Francoeur on April 6 approved the request, which took effect Tuesday — coinciding with the broadcast of a documentary about Fournier’s case.
“I would first like to make it clear that I do not regret my career in any way, quite the contrary,” she said. “I’m proud to have been there and I came out of it with my head held high, well beyond the verdict.”
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LeBel, a member of the legislature from 2014 to 2022, was arrested in December 2020 for sexually assaulting Fournier in 2017 at his condo in Rimouski, Que., about 320 kilometres northeast of Quebec City.
During his trial, Fournier testified that LeBel became aggressive when she refused his advances. She said he unhooked her bra and entered a bathroom where she had sought refuge. She said he then joined her in a bed where he repeatedly touched her sexually for several hours.
A judge in January sentenced LeBel, 60, to eight months in prison after a jury found him guilty following two days of deliberations. He was also sentenced to two years probation, prohibited from contacting the victim and ordered to be registered as a sex offender for 20 years.
LeBel was granted parole this week.
During the trial, Fournier told the judge that she would be part of a documentary about the case. At the time she said she wasn’t sure whether she would reveal her identity publicly. She finally asked a few months later for him to remove the publication ban.
“Each victim is the sole master of their choices and decisions regarding what they have experienced,” she said Tuesday on social media.
“You are courageous, all of you, all of us, and I am thinking of you.”
The documentary, Témoin C.F.” (Witness C.F.) is scheduled for broadcast in Quebec on Wednesday on Videotron’s Vrai platform. Fournier attended an early screening for journalists on Tuesday, telling reporters that when she first decided to go to police, she knew little about the justice system, including how to file a complaint.
She recalled how destabilizing it felt when LeBel chose a trial by jury in Rimouski — a place where he was well-known. But she said she also felt supported during the legal process, including by police officers, prosecutors and victim advocate groups.
Fournier waited two-and-a-half years after the assault to report it to police. She told few people about it, she said, because it was easier to pretend it didn’t happen. LeBel was a well-liked figure at the legislature; she was a relative newcomer to politics.
But the memories of the assault became increasingly persistent, she said, adding that after another ex-member of the PQ — former leader André Boisclair — was charged with sex crimes in 2020, she gained the confidence to file a complaint. Boisclair, leader of the party between 2005 and 2007, pleaded guilty in June 2022 to sexually assaulting two young men and was sentenced to two years less one day in jail; he was granted parole in March.
Earlier on Tuesday, PQ Leader Paul St-Pierre Plamondon was on the defensive at the legislature for not reaching out to Fournier in the aftermath of LeBel’s arrest.
St-Pierre Plamondon said he had quickly suspended LeBel from the party after learning about the member’s arrest. But the PQ leader said he had limited, unreliable information about the allegations against LeBel, which were tied to events outside the workplace. He said he chose to protect the judicial process and didn’t contact Fournier or LeBel and asked others in the party not to as well.
St-Pierre Plamondon said he hopes the case sends a signal for other victims that although the justice system is not perfect, it is reliable, and justice can be obtained.
“I hope, at least, that after she obtained justice, that she will be able to turn the page and live peacefully with those events,” St-Pierre Plamondon told reporters in Quebec City.
Quebec Premier François Legault saluted Fournier’s courage. “A great example of determination. You can be proud. It is important that the victims know that they can report,” Legault tweeted.
“Her strength and her courage are going to help others,” Trudeau tweeted. “Her story is also an important reminder that we must keep working to end violence against women, and to make this country safer for everyone.”
— With files from The Canadian Press’ Pierre Saint-Arnaud