Blazing a trail for women and young people in politics

By Ruby Irene Pratka – Local Journalism Initiative

Audrey Boisjoly, the mayor of Saint-Félix-de-Valois in the Matawinie region, is the poster person for recent efforts by the Fédération des municipalités du Québec (FMQ) to encourage more women and young people to run for municipal elected office.

When she was first elected in 2017, at age 26, she was the youngest mayor in the province. She is now a two-term mayor and second vice-president of the UMQ.

“Politics has always been part of my life; I was involved in provincial politics and environmental policy before [running for mayor],” says Boisjoly, who worked as a political attaché to an MNA before joining her town council, where she served for a year before becoming mayor. “I always thought we could move society forward by getting involved, either as active politicians or doing ‘counter-politics,’ being part of pressure groups. We don’t see a lot of young people getting involved in politics, but a lot of them get involved in ‘counter-politics.’”

Although Boisjoly says her first term went relatively smoothly, she acknowledges that old stereotypes die hard. “I was dealing with a double stereotype in the sense that I was a young person, and also a woman on a majority-male council, but it wasn’t all that difficult,” she says. “When we’ve dealt with files that are typically seen as things men are interested in – for example, transportation – I have been asked, ‘What do you know about transportation, you’re just a young woman.’ That’s still something a person can run into in 2022…but after we worked together for a certain time, they could see that I was just as competent as they were. Files don’t have genders.”

“Those stereotypes fade away when you don’t give them any importance,” she adds. “When you master your files and don’t listen to what anyone else says, you gain everyone’s respect. I still work with some of those people [who criticized me] and I don’t think they’d dare say the same things today.”

Boisjoly emphasizes the importance of role models. “Politics used to be a man’s world; even 20 or 30 years ago, it was a world of businessmen and [male] retirees. How can you see yourself in politics if you don’t see any other women or young people there?” She notes that the FQM has made efforts to increase the visibility of women and young people on its social media channels, and to improve the image of municipal politics.

“Politics used to be a man’s world; even 20 or 30 years ago, it was a world of businessmen and [male] retirees. How can you see yourself in politics if you don’t see any other women or young people there?”

“There was a time when [municipal politics] was all about garbage removal and property taxes, but now it’s a lot more about partnerships,” she added. “We have more and more power over environmental and housing issues – we can be proactive about what matters to us, and that’s definitely something that can interest women and young people.”

Statistics provided by the FQM suggest that the visibility of young women as elected officials – Boisjoly and Longueuil mayor Catherine Fournier are a few recent examples – may be having an effect. Among candidates under age 35 who ran in last fall’s elections, nearly half were women; among 35-44-year-old candidates, 44 per cent were women. “I salute the [young women] who made the choice to get involved in their communities; they in turn will be an inspiration for other women who want to follow in their footsteps,” FQM president Jacques Demers said in October 2021. A few weeks later, Isabelle Lessard broke Boisjoly’s record, taking office as mayor of Chapais, in the Nord-du-Québec region, at age 21.

In Saint-Félix-de-Valois, Boisjoly found herself working with two more female colleagues on her town council and on her MRC council.

“We’re making progress step by step, from one election to the other, especially with young people,” she says. “Young women want a seat at the table. We are the future and we’re thinking about future generations – we’re well placed to leave a legacy for them.”

Her advice for newly elected officials reflects the advice she would have given to her younger self: “Be yourself and remember why you decided to run in the first place and why you were elected. There will be pressure from all sides, and you just need to keep your vision and your strengths in mind.”

Audrey Boisjoly was the youngest woman in Quebec history to become mayor of a municipality when she was first elected in 2017. Now in her second term, she is blazing a trail for women and young people in municipal politics.

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