WIND OF CHANGE — Trained as an economist, Catherine Fournier was the MNA for Marie-Victorin from 2016 to 2021, first within the Parti Québécois, then as an independent MNA. In April 2021, she announced her candidacy for mayor of Longueuil, the municipality where the constituency she represented since 2016 in the National Assembly is located, and she claimed victory on November 7, 2021. She thus became the youngest mayor to be elected in Longueuil, in addition to being the youngest elected in the history of the major cities of Quebec. Engaged, accessible, and attentive to citizens, we were pleased to welcome Catherine Fournier to Strøm Nordic Spa — Mont-Saint-Hilaire to speak with her about her journey and her vision.
What made you want to get involved in politics?
“I’ve always had a natural curiosity about politics. I asked my parents lots of questions; I followed the news. At cégep, I met some friends who were politically engaged and took me to events. I participated in the student mobilization in 2012. One thing led to another: I became a volunteer, I had responsibilities, and one day I asked myself, ‘why not get involved in politics?’ In my teenage years, I got involved in community groups and seniors’ homes. My grandmother lived with me at the time, so I found that politics was a great way to combine my desire to get involved in my community and make a difference, to promote my ideas for society.”
Before getting into municipal politics, you served at the provincial level. What are the differences between the two?
“The municipal level is closest to citizens. It has an influence on 70% of the services we use every day: public transit, parks, streets, recreation, urban planning, water, waste, etc. All this is the responsibility of the municipality.
“In the Quebec government, we deal with issues that are a little more universal, such as health, education, and the environment. This is where the big speeches and debates about bills happen, and directions are often given there that will be defined in cities. Cities are the place where things get implemented, and that’s what I like! Completing
concrete projects, being in the action. I appreciated the years I spent in the National Assembly; they gave me a knowledge base that ensured that I can perform in my role as mayor today.”
In 2017, you published the book L’audace d’agir, a call for engagement from your generation, Gen Y. What do you notice about the political engagement of young people today?
“I wrote that book precisely to respond to the widespread idea that young people aren’t engaged. But it’s not that they aren’t engaged; they’re just engaged in a different way than their predecessors. We’re a generation that gets involved in a more ‘à-la-carte’ way, in specific causes, rather than with a political party, where you have to endorse a wide range of ideas. This is also why, in my opinion, political parties are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit members. It’s also for this reason that, in recent years, I’ve developed a whole line of thinking on how to do politics in a non-partisan way. It’s true that I founded a party myself to run for mayor of Longueuil, but I see this more as a vehicle of opinions, something very flexible and less cumbersome or defined than a traditional political party. That philosophy is changing, and this is maybe the difference that the generations see between themselves in terms of how to be politically engaged.”
In preparation for writing, you visited cégeps and universities to meet with young people. What did you get out of this?
“I received a very warm welcome, full of curiosity. I was just getting started as an elected official, and I got many questions from students about how to make their ideas heard. This isn’t something that’s taught at school, or at any rate, it’s left to the discretion of teachers these days. How does politics work? What does an MNA, a mayor, or a city councillor do? How do the three levels of government differ? A citizenship education course is absolutely necessary to answer these questions.”
In fact, before you were elected mayor of Longueuil, you tabled a motion in the National Assembly to establish a civic and political education course in schools. What’s happening with this project?
“The motion that I tabled was accepted, and I recently received confirmation that this new course is being developed by the teams, particularly the Conseil supérieur de l’éducation. The first pilot projects should be established at the start of the 2022 school year. This course will give young people additional tools so that they can play their role as active citizens. We’re expected to take our place in society, but school currently doesn’t give us the means to do so. Decisions are made every day in our democratic institutions, and we’re the ones who will live with them, and our children after us, so it’s essential to be involved. I found it worrying to hear young people who admitted to me that they weren’t going to vote, because they felt incapable of making an informed choice. That says a lot about the state of our democracy. Of course, there’s an individual responsibility to get informed, but as a society, we have to make sure we provide the foundation. And by ‘provide the foundation,’ I don’t just mean making the information available, but accessible, presented in simple terms, so that anyone can grasp the meaning of what is being communicated and use it on a daily basis to play their role in an even more accomplished way.”
What can you tell us about the current polarization of ideas? What motivates you to keep going despite the tension that this can cause to emerge?
“Our basic responsibility as politicians is to bring people together, and it’s even better if we can bring people together on opposite sides. It’s not about pleasing every group at all costs, but finding a consensus that will then ease tensions. By speaking in a positive and inclusive way and focusing on trust and transparency, in all humbleness, I hope to be able to play a role in finding our way out of this crisis, where so much polarization has been felt. I think every elected official has the responsibility to play this unifying role. We’re used to playing politics against each other, bringing others down to elevate ourselves, and in my opinion, this is harmful to society and democratic life in general. I’d like to prove that it’s possible to do politics differently.”
Based on discussions that you may have had with colleagues who have been in politics for a while, do you think it’s harder to do politics today, in the age of social media?
“I’ve already talked about this with colleagues who have been in the business for longer, and they find it quite difficult. These days, information travels so quickly that when something happens, you have to react almost instantly. It’s kind of a challenge to know what will get the most attention! But that’s how information works these days, so for people who have experienced both realities, the gap between the two is huge, and I totally understand them feeling the more negative sides of social media more.
“On the other hand, I personally see it more positively than negatively. Since I’m comfortable with the platforms, they allow me to communicate information to the population without always having to go through traditional media. Social networks also ensure that I can be accessible, let people get to know me… In my opinion, all these advantages greatly exceed the unpleasant side of the hurtful comments that might be received. However, I believe that the time we spend every day reacting to things that are going on in real time might sometimes be better invested, such as by searching for proactive solutions to real issues.”
Through all this, are you able to maintain a balance between work and your personal life?
“I learned it over time! When I started in politics, I never said ‘no’ to anything. I have a family and very understanding friends, but at a certain point, not just for them, but also for myself, it’s important to give some time to them. We become better people at work when we have a better work-life balance, when we make room for other things in
our heads and our daily lives. But it’s not easy to stop when your job is your passion! I like looking at my emails while having coffee on Sunday morning, so I have to be careful. Just because I like it doesn’t make it a healthy thing to do.”