Mayor of Gatineau resigns citing difficult climate for municipal politicians

MONTREAL — France Bélisle, the mayor of Gatineau, Que., abruptly resigned her post Thursday, citing a difficult climate for municipal politicians in the province.

"I really questioned the price paid to accomplish this demanding work in a context — let's say it — that is often hostile," an emotional Bélisle told reporters.

Bélisle said she has been witness to personal attacks that go beyond normal political criticism, including death threats from members of the public. She said she decided to quit, effective immediately, to preserve her health and her integrity.

"Being mayor is the most wonderful job I have had and the greatest honour that has been given to me, but it is also the most difficult job I have had,” she said. She also cited unspecified upcoming decisions with which she does not want to be associated.

Bélisle called on the provincial government to reflect on the plight of municipal politicians, citing other cases in which politicians have quit or taken a leave of absence.

The former mayor noted the resignation in November of the mayor of Chapais, Isabelle Lessard, who said she was exhausted after forest fires threatened her town last summer. Sherbrooke Mayor Évelyne Beaudin also took a temporary leave from her job last October, citing a risk of exhaustion.

“I think we should all be concerned about a public service that is no longer popular," Bélisle said.

Municipal Affairs Minister Andrée Laforest greeted Bélisle's resignation with regret but defended her government's efforts to support municipal politicians.

Québec solidaire municipal affairs critic Étienne Grandmont said Bélisle is the latest in a list of 741 municipal officials who have resigned since municipal elections were last held across the province in 2021.

"The situation must change and quickly," he said. "We are currently experiencing an epidemic of departures that are a symptom of neglect on the issue of harassment and intimidation and that constitute an important risk for our democracy."

Bélisle had been in office since 2021, when she was elected the first female mayor of Gatineau, which lies across the river from Ottawa. Coun. Daniel Champagne will replace her in the role for the time being. The next municipal elections in Quebec are scheduled for 2025.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 22, 2024.

Vicky Fragasso-Marquis, The Canadian Press