At just 21, Isabelle Lessard becomes one of Quebec's youngest mayors

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Isabelle Lessard, 21, became one of Quebec's youngest mayors when she was elected by acclamation for the municipality of Chapais. (Submitted by Isabelle Lessard - image credit)
Isabelle Lessard, 21, became one of Quebec's youngest mayors when she was elected by acclamation for the municipality of Chapais. (Submitted by Isabelle Lessard - image credit)

When Isabelle Lessard saw that no one else was running for mayor in Chapais, Que., the 21-year-old decided to put her name forward despite having no experience in municipal politics.

"I was looking for new challenges," she said, adding that she felt it was an opportunity for her to step up and help her town when no one else would.

"I told myself 'well, the worst that can happen to me is that I go through the campaign and lose, and I'll move on.'"

The circumstances played in her favour.

Someone else did end up deciding to run as well, the outgoing municipal councillor Jacques Fortin, but he withdrew his candidacy in early October, making her mayor by acclamation. She was sworn in on Nov. 2.

"When I found out, I jumped with joy in my living room. I couldn't believe it! I didn't understand what was happening," recalled Lessard, who quit her job of three years working with seniors and paused her studies in massage therapy to focus full time on her new role.

She said she was stressed, but also really proud to lead the town she's called home since she was born.

Located in northern Quebec, more than 500 kilometers northwest of Quebec City, Chapais has about 1,500 residents, according to the 2016 census.

The young leader of an aging population

Submitted by Isabelle Lessard
Submitted by Isabelle Lessard

At just 21, Lessard is one of the province's youngest mayors. Only three per cent of Quebec's 1,091 newly elected mayors are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to the province's Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing.

Some people in the community worry about having such a young mayor, said resident Diane Gendron. But Gendron, 62, isn't one of them.

"It's time to let the young people help us and tackle the issues that we have here in Chapais," she said.

Gendron knows Lessard from working with her at Rayons de Soleil, a local volunteer group that organizes activities and rides for seniors.

She said she is confident the young woman will excel in her new role, despite her lack of political experience.

"She'll learn. We all have to start somewhere in life," she said, noting Lessard will have a team of councillors to help her.

With Chapais's aging population in decline, one of Lessard's big challenges will be to attract new workers to the region.

The lack of workers led to the closure of the town's local restaurant more than a year ago, when its owner got cancer and couldn't find anyone to take over. The town's only gas station also closed for a few months this fall, forcing residents to drive to a nearby town to fill their tank.

Lessard said she is keen to prioritize projects that will help develop the town and make it more attractive to newcomers.

Community at the heart of Lessard's vision for the town

Submitted by Isabelle Lessard
Submitted by Isabelle Lessard

Another of Lessard's big priorities is to boost citizen engagement in the community.

"With my team, we already have projects to create more citizen committees so that people can have responsibilities and get involved," she said.

In that respect, Lessard can say she leads by example. The young mayor is part of the town's snowmobiling committee, volunteers at the local church and with seniors, and writes a blog on mental health.

Her love for her community shines through when she speaks about it. She describes Chapais as a very inclusive and diverse place that offers thousands of opportunities, where everyone is helpful and welcoming.

It's the kind of place where everyone will come out to help you if your car gets stuck in the snow, she said.

"On top of that, we also have beautiful landscapes," she said with a laugh.

The young mayor said she hopes her journey will motivate other young people to get involved in local politics.

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