Destroying Partisan Politics with a Smile
Catherine Fournier is bringing a bold new vision in her campaign to become mayor of Longueuil.
They came at her relentlessly.
Catherine Fournier was called a traitor, a fool and an egomaniac. She was told to go back to the kitchen where she belonged and that she was better suited to clean the National Assembly than sit in it.
These weren’t her opponents speaking. Some of the most vile attacks came from within her own party, from self-proclaimed supporters of the Parti Québécois.
Once these men and women cheered Fournier on at rallies and spoke about the 29-year-old as a rising star in provincial politics. They had placed their hopes and dreams in her. Fournier was the youngest woman to ever be elected to Quebec’s legislature when she entered the National Assembly five years ago. And in 2018, when the PQ dropped two-thirds of its seats and lost official party status for the first time since 1976, Fournier was one of just 10 people left standing.
Just nine months after being elected under the PQ banner, at a March 11 press conference in the provincial capital, Fournier publicly announced she’d be leaving the party to sit as an independent. Like the majority of the PQ’s once fiercely loyal base, she no longer saw her values reflected in the party.
The blowback was fierce.
When she posted a video on her Facebook page explaining the decision, a fringe group of supporters let loose a slew of degrading comments. Chief among them, one man predicted Fournier had just “committed political suicide.”
That was over two years ago, and Catherine Fournier isn’t dead yet.
Last summer she announced she’d be vacating her seat to run for mayor in her hometown of Longueuil — Quebec’s fifth largest city. To say things are going well would be something of an understatement. Her nearest competitor, businesswoman Josée Latendresse, has the unenviable task of trying to claw back from a 23-point deficit in the polls with just a few days of campaigning before the Nov. 7 vote.
Perhaps it’s because this isn’t an ordinary campaign. Fournier is running on a promise to kill partisan politics in her city to build something better in its place.
“Political parties are eroding democracy,” said Fournier, in an interview with The Rover. “You see elected officials, from all parties, who lose themselves in the game. I don’t doubt that they ran for office with good intentions but they get swallowed into that toxic culture.
“It’s all about sinking the other parties to lift yourself up, it’s all about staying on the attack all the time. It makes for entertaining news coverage but how does that help our constituents? I dream of a future without political parties, where we can come together and build on each other’s ideas instead of just fighting for more power.”
Here’s the catch: under provincial law, you need to have a political party to be eligible for subsidies and other benefits built into our electoral system. That’s how deeply rooted the problem is, according to Fournier.
So she created Coalition Longueuil, a slate of candidates who helped her craft a platform and who share her vision of post-partisan politics. She says that if they’re elected, candidates won’t have to tow a party line. There won’t be backroom deals or bare-knuckle tactics. Just plain old democracy.
“I don’t ever want one of our candidates to vote for legislation that goes against their conscience,” Fournier said. “They are accountable to their constituents, not to a party. We fully intend to practice that philosophy if we win.
“We have a chance to do things differently now.”
There was no turning back.
Once Fournier sent the text message, things would never be the same again.
Would her colleagues feel betrayed by Fournier’s decision to leave the PQ? Would they ever be friends again? Would they condemn her in public or reach out to a friendly journalist and give a few blistering quotes under the veil of anonymity?
Fournier had made the decision two weeks earlier but actually going through with it was a struggle until the last possible second. And so, as she stood alone in her Quebec City apartment, watching snow fall on the capital, it was time to take that leap into the unknown.
“The decision was only really final when I sent that text message,” Fournier said. “I had thought about it for months but, in my head, I could always just change my mind. The point of no return was really that text message to (interim PQ leader) Pascal Bérubé.”
The truth is, she never really felt comfortable inside any political party.
In college, Fournier was the president of Étudiants Souverainistes de l’Université de Montréal — a non-partisan group that advocated for Quebec independence. Their membership included supporters of other nationalist parties like Québec Solidaire and Option Nationale.
“I could have joined the PQ’s youth wing but there’s a bit of a sectarian attitude that divides people into good sovereigntists and bad sovereigntists,” she said. “I didn’t like that. I don’t want to live on a diet of conflict, I don’t feel comfortable being at war with another party especially when we probably agree on a lot to begin with.”
Even so, the allure of party politics was hard to resist for Fournier.
She had a rare combination of assets; youth without hubris, someone who listened to people instead of waiting for her turn to talk and she was an economist who could actually excite a crowd instead of bore it to death. So when a job opened up at the PQ in 2014, Fournier put her reservations aside and joined the party as a political aide.
Two years later, former cabinet minister Bernard Drainville retired from politics, leaving his seat vacant in Fournier’s hometown. She ran for the party in a byelection and won it handily.
“There was a lot of healthy debate within the PQ. You could disagree and come up with solutions and that was attractive to me,” said Fournier. “But there’s also a sort of perverse incentive system built into our democracy. If you want to gain political capital, you need to get the media’s attention. And you do that by attacking the government’s policy. So you spend your time reacting to the government instead of working on policy or solutions. You say things you might not otherwise say because you want to be in the conversation.
“I remember, after the Coalition Avenir Québec was elected in 2018, they presented a bill on immigration. And our job was to look for the absolute worst part of the legislation and get worked up about it. It was never a question of actually working together. It was, ‘Let’s hit them hard, if we have to exaggerate, we’ll exaggerate. It’s politics.’
“But again, I can’t blame my colleagues because every party does this.”
Fournier found herself playing the game too, letting go of her empathy and humanity to score points during question period. One day a researcher approached her with a new line of attack against the government. It was a witty, stinging piece of rhetoric but something felt off about it.
“There was a factual error that was actually pretty significant,” Fournier said. “I remember telling the researcher, ‘That isn’t right. We can’t just put bad information out there, I’m not comfortable saying this.’ And he told me, ‘It doesn’t matter, it’s a good line, we need to use it.’ That’s how far gone it was.
“Sometimes, it felt like the meaner I was, the more applause I’d get from my teammates. But then I’d listen back and think, ‘Wow, I don’t recognize myself anymore.’”
There were other factors, longstanding problems with the party that seemed irreparable even from within. When she was in university protesting tuition hikes in 2012, Fournier remembers PQ Leader Pauline Marois backing the student strike. Marois courted the student vote heavily, promising to freeze tuition if her party formed a government.
When she came to power in 2012, Marois reneged, indexing tuition increases to the cost of living. It was, to be sure, not the dramatic hike that students had fought against but it stuck in Fournier’s memory.
The party’s decision to elect media mogul Pierre Karl Péladeau as leader in 2015 seemed to further alienate the PQ from its youth wing. Once a champion of labour rights, the PQ now had a leader famous for breaking unions at his media properties. But the party felt they could win with Péladeau members buried their pride and fell in line.
Finally, there was the PQ’s growing obsession with identity issues. In 2014, the party triggered an election on a promise to secularize Quebec’s hospitals, schools and other government institutions. In theory, this meant that no civil servant would be allowed to display religious symbols on the job. In practice, it seemed mainly to target hijabi Muslim women.
By the time the 2018 election came around, the PQ was no longer in a position to form a government or even become the official opposition. Enough young supporters either stayed home or switched their vote to Québec Solidaire, which surpassed the party of René Levesque as the leading voice of sovereigntists in the National Assembly.
“These identity issues weren't the priorities of young Quebecers,” said Fournier. “In my own circle of friends, I was seeing more and more people leave the PQ to join Québec Solidaire. It was getting harder to defend my party.”
And so it was early during her second term of office that she began speaking out behind closed doors. There were, as she put it, “a lot of big discussions.” Pretty soon, it felt like she was fighting a losing battle. Three sources in the PQ say that, in retrospect, they should have seen Fournier’s departure coming.
“It was common knowledge that I wasn’t happy,” said Fournier. “But I also couldn’t just announce that I was leaving. There would be a leak to the press and then I wouldn’t be able to make the point I was trying to make. So I learned to live with the secret.”
Valérie Beaudoin, a close friend of Fournier’s, had no idea she’d be leaving the PQ.
“She was incredibly discreet about it,” said Beaudoin, a political commentator. “I knew she was questioning herself and role within the party, I knew she wasn’t happy but she kept her cards close to her chest on that one.
“I can’t imagine how hard that would have been, to keep that from your friends and colleagues, to know it might destroy relationships you’ve had for years. It’s not something you do on a whim. I know it came from a place of deep conviction.”
After months of keeping that secret, she composed a message to her boss, informing him that she’d be making an announcement about her future in politics. It may seem cryptic but the words left no room for interpretation: Fournier was out.
She hit send, turned off her phone and tried to get some sleep.
“I’m in the media and I’m a woman so I’m no stranger to online harassment but what I saw after Catherine announced her departure was really upsetting,” said Beaudoin. “It wasn’t just that they were calling her a traitor. The comments were attacking her sexuality, they called her a ‘little girl’, said that she just wanted attention, they attacked her physical appearance.
“They made it sound like she was an opportunist, like she was just playing a game to get ahead. But let me tell you that had she stayed in the party, she would have had whatever job she wanted. It would have been easier to stay but she followed her convictions.”
Fournier says her decision did cost her friendships. That some people may never forgive her for leaving the party when it was at its lowest.
But she says others have stayed close and supported her through difficult times.
“The future is long, you know? I’m sure that fences will be mended and old relationships can be rebuilt,” said Fournier. “In the end, it was a hard thing to do but it was also the right thing to do. I can sleep better knowing I listened to my conscience.”
Long seen as an impenetrable PQ stronghold, the Marie-Victorain riding in Longueuil was nearly swept up in the pale blue wave that gave the CAQ its majority government three years ago.
It was Fournier’s ability to connect with voters and knock on doors that helped her stave off an election loss. At least that’s what four of former colleagues told The Rover. Even so, her party’s share of the vote dropped 21 per cent and she only edged out the CAQ by a few hundred ballots.
In fact, the Liberals and Québec Solidaire also increased their vote share at the expense of the PQ.
“À force de perdre, le PQ est devenu perdant.”
Fournier would later say that to explain her departure from the party. It doesn’t quite translate to English but, in essence, sometimes you lose so much you forget how to win. Like the rest of Quebec, Longueuil is changing. it is becoming more conservative in some corners but an influx of young families from Montreal and immigrants from across the world are pulling the city further to the left as well.
“About 50 per cent of the children in kindergarten are either first or second generation immigrants, there are more community organizations in this riding, than in any other in Quebec,” Fournier said. “When I left the party, it allowed me to spend less time in partisan fights and more time in my hometown. I realized that the diversity we see on the ground isn’t reflected in our politics.”
It was during a visit to a migrant women’s group that Fournier came across Rolande Balma.
“I just remember feeling heard, I remember seeing a young woman in politics who wanted to know more about me and my situation and that felt different,” said Balma. “She wasn’t trying to sell anything, she was there to listen. We got to know each other and I learned that if I would bring a problem to her, she would find me a solution.”
Balma is part of the changing face of Longueuil.
Her parents moved the family from Burkina Faso to the South Shore seven years ago and the transition wasn’t easy.
“My mother, her university degree wasn’t recognized in Quebec but she never let up,” Balma said. “She worked and went back to school and it never ceases to amaze me the sacrifices she made for us. I think about what I would have had to do in her place. I think about a lot of immigrants who get minimum wage jobs in factories and go to school at night.
“We all learned to support each other.”
Balma had to grow up fast, getting a job as a waitress while her mom — who was a teacher back home — studied to be a nurse. Her dad, also a former teacher, took a job as an orderly and was on the frontlines during the COVID-19 crisis. With what little time she had to spare each week, Balma volunteered in an organization that helps migrant women get settled in Quebec.
Just before the municipal campaign began, Fournier asked Balma to meet with her.
“She wanted to know what I cared most about in this city,” said Balma. “I told her that I wanted to see more women who look like me in politics, women who know what it is to have to start over in a new country. And then she asked me if I’d be interested in joining her team.
“I wouldn’t go into politics with anyone but Catherine.”
Balma is just 21 and a student at Concordia University but when Fournier spoke to me about her, she said she saw something special in the young woman.
“This is someone who, at a very young age, had to grow up and be there for her family,” said Fournier. “If we’re going to represent this city, it has to be with a slate of candidates who know what our citizens go through every day. You can’t change politics if it’s always the same people in power.”
Fournier says it was meeting people like Balma that pushed her into the mayoral run. There were other factors too. A white hot housing market on the South Shore is destroying what little is left of Longueuil’s wetlands to make way for pavement, sewers and semi-detached homes.
“On the North Shore, in St-Lin, new development is happening so fast that the city actually ran out water. Their infrastructure can’t keep up with all the real-estate speculation and growth,” Fournier said. “We’re seeing these developers just build indiscriminately and city councils feel they have to go along to increase their tax base. But at what cost?”
When incumbent mayor Sylvie Parent announced, in February, that she won’t seek re-election, Fournier’s future became clearer. Parent came under fire last year when it was revealed she is the highest paid elected official in Quebec, raking in $250,000 a year. She tried passing a resolution to slash her base pay by $40,000. City council rejected it, seeking an even a steeper cut, but since no new resolution was introduced, the mayor’s salary remains the same.
The appearance of graft has long been the norm in municipal politics across the province. The 2012 Charbonneau Commission revealed rampant corruption in Montreal and the surrounding cities, where officials would trade hundreds of thousands in political donations for lucrative public contracts. Though municipal fundraising has since been reformed, voter turnout below 40 per cent and high turnover in municipal office speaks to the broken trust between voters and their cities.
This too presents an opportunity for Fournier.
“We have a clear set of promises to ensure that citizens know exactly where their money is going,” Fournier said. “I’m not interested in re-litigating the past, I want us to move forward and earn back the trust of our citizens. These are our neighbours, our friends, they deserve better.”
Provincial politics haven’t gotten any less vicious since Fournier announced her run for mayor. If anything, it’s getting much worse.
The government of François Legault is pushing forward an increasingly divisive agenda, scapegoating “bad doctors” for a chronically underfunded healthcare system, suing Indigenous child welfare advocates and using degrading language to refer to his political opponents.
While his government makes splashy announcements about teaming up with France to fight cancel culture, issues like access to affordable housing and the opioids crisis killing nearly one person every day in Quebec fly way under the radar. His government has fought against measures like a provincial tenant’s registry, which would prevent landlords from making illegal rent hikes.
You won’t find Fournier taking shots at her opponents. She’s actually started building bridges with candidates in other cities in hopes of creating a common front in the fight for affordable housing. Last month, she teamed up with Laval mayoral candidate Stéphane Boyer to call for a provincial summit on housing.
“I’m under no illusions that a few mayors will be able to fix this problem,” said Fournier. “But if we can get everyone to the table — we’re talking the federal, provincial and municipal governments — we can get results for people who have the right to housing.”
It would take a statistical error of epic proportions for the polls to be wrong about Fournier. In all likelihood, she’ll be elected Longueuil’s mayor next week.
At this point, the question of whether she can actually change the way we do politics seems almost irrelevant.
She already has.
About the editor…
Sheena Macmillan is a third-year journalism student at Concordia University and Editor-in-Chief of The Link. You can find her work
I worry that the wave of victories for women mayors in Quebec is just a symptom of men giving up the helm, but being perfectly content to practice business-as-usual back room politics. Nevertheless, Catherine Fournier is a breath of fresh air to clean up the Longueuil stink.
Very enheartening, she sounds wonderful, honest and logical - now if only she would drop separation...also, Chris, know the uncompromising nature of the PQ, Francophone people I know whisper their disagreement with the party - they are afraid to be ostracized. Amazing to me.