When no one wants to run for mayor: Quebec’s small town democracy deficit

By , on October 16, 2017


Église Saint-Stanislas (Photo by Par Fralambert — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Église Saint-Stanislas (Photo by Par Fralambert — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 3.0)

MONTREAL — Lise Dery, a single mother and outgoing mayor of a small Quebec town, decided not to run for re-election this year so she could spend more time with her nine-year-old son.

The problem is no one wanted to replace her.

Saint-Stanislas, a community of about 1,000 people on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River between Trois-Rivieres and Quebec City, is one of five municipalities in the province where no one will be running for mayor in the Nov. 5 elections.

Moreover, citizens in just about half of the 1,100 municipalities in Quebec won’t vote for their mayor that day because their candidate ran unopposed and was acclaimed.

This lack of choice is primarily a problem in Quebec’s smaller towns, where low pay and difficult working hours make the job less attractive — especially to people with young children, experts say.

Out of the 203 Quebec municipalities where the entire local government was elected by acclamation this year, 164 have fewer than 2,000 people.

Quebec’s eight largest cities have at least three people running for mayor, while Montreal, Quebec City and Laval — the three biggest — have eight, six and seven candidates, respectively.

Dery, whose primary income comes from her job as a pharmacy technician, said her annual pay as mayor was so small she only recently found out the amount.

“I actually never took stock of what the pay was,” she said with a chuckle. “I read it the other day in the newspaper, it was $10,000 or something like that.”

But for her, the pay wasn’t the main problem because despite leaving the mayoral job, she is returning as a councillor, where the work schedule is more consistent.

“I’m a single mom,” she said. “I have a great relationship with (my boy’s) father, but when you have a meeting almost every night … my son started to have issues with the fact his mother was never around.”

Laurence Bherer, a professor at Universite de Montreal who researches civic engagement, said Quebec’s small towns are paradoxes.

“They are the places with the most acclamations, yet when there are elections they vote the most … often reaching 85 per cent participation,” she said.

Smaller towns have fewer candidates to choose from, she explained, adding even a municipality of 1,000 must have a council of six people in order for it to be a proper deliberative body.

The provincial government could merge small towns but then it gets harder for politicians to travel and visit constituents, Bherer said.

“We are looking at a problem where the solutions aren’t easy,” she said.

Sandra Breux, who researches municipal democracy at Quebec’s National Institute of Scientific Research, said the high number of acclamations in small-town elections isn’t a new phenomenon in Quebec, and no municipalities are alike.

In small towns everyone knows the mayor, she said, making people potentially uneasy about running against them if they are doing a good job.

“But it’s clear that we need to polish the image of the municipal politician,” said Breux. “We need to show how essential this work is. And we need to talk about how little they are paid, about how the pay is not reflective of the work involved.”

Breux said low pay for small-town politicians means they usually have other day jobs and “you need to make concessions.”

“It’s clear for women in politics who are mothers it’s much more difficult,” she noted. “The meetings are at night. It’s just logistically harder.”

Within sight of the island of Montreal, on the southern shore of the St. Lawrence River, is the community of Candiac, which received three extra councillors this election because the town’s population recently exceeded 20,000 people.

All eight councillors as well as incumbent mayor Normand Dyotte were recently acclaimed in the 60-year-old bedroom community.

“We are a young city,” Dyotte said in an interview. “I am beginning my third mandate and I’m only the fourth mayor in 60 years.

“There is a type of continuity that has settled in here. The population has confidence in the mayors and the council.”

This continuity of local governance has proven to be an asset, he said. Election turnover means a period of adapting for the newly elected and some files are cancelled while others are modified.

“Citizens have good services and we have good employees,” Dyotte said. “Democracy is here. Anyone was welcome to run. We were ready to face the music if we had to.”

Back in Saint-Stanislas, Dery said a second nomination period opens at the end of October for the mayor’s seat.

“And I hope someone wants to run,” she said. “If not, the municipal affairs minister can step in and appoint someone.”

Elections for Quebec’s 1,100 municipalities are scheduled for Nov. 5.

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Some numbers on Quebec’s 2017 municipal elections

8,015 total jobs up for grabs for mayor or councillor.

4,046 women are running for a job on council, including 385 for the position of mayor, representing 31.3 per cent of all candidates.

4,382 mayors and councillors ran unopposed and were acclaimed.

79 jobs remained unfulfilled after the end of the nomination period, including five mayoralties.

528 mayors acclaimed out of 1,100 positions.

3,854 councillors acclaimed out of 6,915 positions.