A seemingly innocuous request made by Mayor Jeanne Charlebois to her fellow United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR) council members to send a congratulatory letter to newly-elected Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante ended in a heated discussion.
Charlebois suggested the letter to offer a simple congratulations to Montreal’s first-ever woman mayor prepared by the UCPR and signed by Warden Gary Barton.
Barton agreed, saying he didn’t have a problem with the gesture. And the matter seemed done—not quite.
Barton opened the floor to comments from the other council members. East Hawkesbury Mayor Robert Kirby suggested also sending a letter to newly-minted mayor Tom Arnold in Grenville-sur-la-Rouge. Again, Barton said wouldn’t be a problem.
But the idea of congratulating some and leaving out others didn’t sit well with Mayor François St. Amour of The Nation.
“Why are we congratulating just some individual mayors while we should be keeping our nose out of Québec politics?” he said.
Charlebois expanded on her initial request.
“Gentlemen,” she said to an audible snicker coming from the rest of council, “we have an outstanding situation here. For the first time, in the history of the City of Montreal, that’s over 300 years, they have a woman who has been elected mayor, over a very strong competitor, and I think this is something absolutely remarkable what she has accomplished with her team.” She went on, “For us to say to the lady, ‘Congratulations, we wish you all the best. Thank you for presenting yourself and doing such a great job,’ I don’t see anything wrong with that, sir. Maybe from your point of view as a man, it’s business as usual.”
To that last comment, St. Amour loudly interjected, “No, no. Do not go there.”
Though where “there” was wasn’t entirely clear. Perhaps it was pointing out that his argument that congratulating some mayors and not others didn’t hold water since there is absolutely nothing that forces council to congratulate all mayors if it decides to congratulate one. Or maybe it was the fact that men have run Canadian politics at the federal, provincial and municipal level for the majority of the country’s history.
“As a woman, I’m just saying this is something that is outstanding,” said Charlebois to St. Amour’s comment before being cut off by the Warden’s gavel.
“You’ve made your point, I don’t think that last comment was necessary,” said Barton.
“Totally out of place,” added St. Amour.
Barton then went around the table asking if the UCPR should send the congratulatory letter. Every single male member said no.
“I guess, it’s not going to happen under my signature,” said Barton.
“It’ll happen under mine,” replied Charlebois.
Following the exchange, Charlebois said she was surprised at council’s reaction.
“Being that we’re the Counties that are neighbouring Québec, and that so many people from Québec intermingle with us… I just thought it would’ve been nice if we congratulated this lady, that’s all,” she said.
During a break in the meeting, The Review asked if Charlebois could speak about challenges that came with being the only woman on council.
“In a minute?” she laughed. “No, listen, I wasn’t talking for me, I was talking for the lady. Of course I can relate, you’re proud. It’s quite something to say you’re the first woman to have accomplished that—get elected by the population and that you sit at a table with a majority of men and that’s you’re able to work with them is good. The message is getting out that yes, women can.”
Radio-Canada then asked Charlebois if she regretted her comment to St. Amour.
“No, I don’t,” came the reply with a few seconds’ pause. “I think this morning was an opportunity to send a message to all the women of the area that we’re congratulating this outstanding woman who did a great job… and won an election that a lot of people didn’t think she would.”