Quebec mayor, 23, resigns mid-mandate because of burnout from managing forest fires

CHAPAIS, Que. — One of Quebec's youngest mayors announced Wednesday she will be stepping down next week, suffering the effects of burnout from handling last summer's historic wildfire season in her northern community.

Isabelle Lessard was acclaimed in 2021 as mayor of Chapais, Que., a town of just over 1,500 people, located 400 kilometres northwest of Quebec City.

The 23-year-old said Wednesday that her resignation is effective Nov. 17, about halfway through her mandate. She has been on a leave since mid-September, after shepherding Chapais through one of the worst forest fire seasons on record.

In an interview with The Canadian Press, Lessard said she feels unable to complete her term and is at risk of developing post-traumatic stress syndrome.

“Even if I was at 100 per cent when it was time to return to work, the workload was going to be enormous because I have been absent for a bit,” Lessard said.

“I saw it happening and I said to myself: I don’t think I’m going to have managed to build myself up strong enough to be able to face it."

At the beginning of June, two-thirds of the residents of Lessard's community were forced from their homes for several days as wildfires closed in. The community was on high alert in the weeks that followed.

She said that before going on leave, she was sleeping poorly and felt constantly stressed. She also felt anger — first over the unprecedented forest fire situation and then at herself for not being strong enough.

She doesn't think this is the end of her time in public life.

“Yes, I'm leaving two years later, but I still have my life ahead of me, and maybe it's not the end of politics for me," Lessard said. "I think I need to take a step back."

Lessard said she realizes the message from her decision might be seen as contradictory for younger generations looking to her as inspiration for entering politics, but she encouraged them to take the leap, all the while being mindful of their own health.

“I think you just have to be aware of those battles,” she said of taking care of mental health issues.

Lessard acknowledged that finding a replacement as mayor could be difficult in the small community.

The Union des Municipalités du Québec, an organization representing towns and cities across the province, paid tribute to Lessard on Wednesday.

“Isabelle gave her body and soul for her community, it is now her turn to take care of herself," the organization's president, Martin Damphousse, said in a statement.

"Her decision seriously reminds us that municipal officials are, above all, human beings, the challenges and crises they face are increasingly complex and also reveal the importance of their role."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2023.

— By Vicky Fragasso-Marquis in Montreal

The Canadian Press