Lévis gets a lone opposition voice, after years of mayor's party sweeping council

·4 min read
Serge Bonin says he feels like he’s a voice for everyone in Lévis who supported his party on its first foray into municipal politics. (Susan Campbell/CBC - image credit)
Serge Bonin says he feels like he’s a voice for everyone in Lévis who supported his party on its first foray into municipal politics. (Susan Campbell/CBC - image credit)

When the Lévis Mayor Gilles Lehouillier walks into chambers for the first city council meeting of his third mandate Monday night, he'll be facing an opposition councillor for the first time in four years.

Serge Bonin is the lone candidate from the newly minted Repensons Lévis party to win a seat on council in the Nov. 7 vote. He beat the incumbent in the district of Saint-Étienne, Mario Fortier, by a slim 72 votes.

"I'm a little bit surprised to be there," Bonin says with a laugh, "but I think I have something to offer the citizens. I have the curiosity to be there. And I have the will to change some things."

The Lehouillier machine

Bonin's election is all the more surprising, given the dominance of Lehouillier and his party in Lévis politics since his first election as mayor in 2013. That year, Lehouillier's team took 14 of 15 council seats (there was one independent voted in).

In 2017, the mayor's party swept every district — with 10 candidates running unopposed. Lehouillier himself was elected with around 90 per cent of the vote.

Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada
Marc-Antoine Lavoie/Radio-Canada

Lehouillier's party, now named Force Lévis 10, took 14 seats this month and Lehouillier himself garnered 75 per cent of the vote for mayor.

Lehouillier was triumphant on election night.

"After two mandates, maintaining this kind of score is a unique feat in the annals of Quebec politics," he told the media after his win.

Information the antidote to apathy

Bonin, who works as a conference organizer and voiceover artist, had never dreamed of a career in politics. But when the Repensons Lévis party approached him, the father of four decided to put his name on the ballot. He wanted to challenge what he saw as top-down decision-making at the council level.

Lévis is one of the fastest growing cities in Quebec and Bonin says residential construction is one issue where the disconnect between people in Saint-Étienne and city hall is obvious. He heard an earful on the campaign trail from voters who were angry at the way neighbourhood trees had been cleared for the building of an apartment complex.

"People were shocked by that because they didn't know how it was decided," he says.

Bonin thinks a lack of consultation is one of the big reasons why so few cast a vote at the municipal level. During the campaign, when he engaged people in conversation on issues facing the district, they were passionate about sharing their vision for the city. He's pledging to do that often as councillor.

"The citizens are experts in using things: using parks, streets. We have to listen to them, and work with them," he says.

Susan Campbell/CBC
Susan Campbell/CBC

Every vote counts

Jonathan Tanguay, who was the campaign director for Repensons Lévis, says the party was born out of citizens chafing at a lack of transparency.

"We knocked on more than 35,000 doors across the city and we met people from different backgrounds. And they were saying to us that they didn't know what was happening behind the closed doors of city council," he says.

When faced with that criticism during the campaign, Lehouillier pointed out that his administration was the first in Lévis history to webcast council meetings, so people could follow from home.

Tanguay points to his party's election results as proof there's desire for change.

On top of Bonin's win, Repensons Lévis candidates came close to beating incumbents in two other districts: Charny and Pintendre.

While Force Lévis 10 remains a virtual monolith on council, Repensons Lévis managed to garner 35 per cent of the popular vote across the city's districts, and 20 per cent of the vote for mayor. That means they qualify for a budget and a cabinet.

As Lévis embarks on the next four years, which will include important debates around issues like transit (including the plan for a tunnel under the St. Lawrence River to Quebec City), Bonin says that having a team with him at city hall will be essential.

"We'll have access to information, to documents," says Bonin. "As a citizen, we only get a little part of it. Now we'll have the keys to open the doors."

Susan Campbell/CBC
Susan Campbell/CBC

Bonin is conscious that as the lone opposition councillor, he has to be a voice on issues from across the city, although his first responsibility is to the residents of Saint-Étienne. But his official duties were expanded when Lehouillier announced he was naming Bonin to several committees, with responsibilities ranging from waste management to urban planning.

"We can have political differences — that's normal. But we're here to work in the interests of the population," says Lehouillier.

In a message to people in his district after his swearing in, Bonin said he considered the nominations a sign of the mayor's willingness to co-operate.

He feels confident he can be a team player. But he also says he'll be critical when necessary, to represent the thousands of voters who threw their support behind a fledgling political party.

"It's a voice that's never been heard at town hall," he says.

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