Skip to content

From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Under the Hoodie

Catherine Dorion did politics differently

Graham Fraser

Les têtes brûlées: Carnets d’espoir punk

Catherine Dorion

Lux Éditeur

376 pages, softcover and ebook

If you type “Catherine Dorion” into YouTube, you find video of a seemingly confident young woman doing a devastating takedown of the media baron Pierre Karl Péladeau in an Assemblée nationale committee hearing. If you google “Catherine Dorion hoodie,” you see that the BBC and other international outlets reported the story of that same young woman being refused entry to the Quebec chamber in 2019, for wearing a sweatshirt. Closer to home, Dorion’s unconventional clothing choices ate up acres of newsprint and inspired hours of sophisticated sociological analysis. She went on to mock the attention with a Halloween costume: a well-tailored suit, the sort that most female politicians wear every day.

Given all the exposure, I imagined Catherine Dorion to be a rather self-assured politician, knowingly provocative and supported by her radical colleagues in Québec solidaire. But no.

Les têtes brûlées: Carnets d’espoir punk (roughly translated, Hotheads: Notebooks of punk hope) tells a story of petty jealousies, party hierarchy, class prejudice, exhaustion, near despair, and burnout. The price Dorion paid for standing out was substantial. Leaders of her party — in particular the co-leader Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois — responded as if every column inch of Dorion coverage was stolen from them.

We are living in an era of programmed, predictable politicians who sing from the same song sheet, coached and scripted by communication specialists. Reporters who ask for an interview with, or even just a comment from, a minister are more likely to receive a bland statement from an aide. The era of unscripted remarks and debate is as distant and dated as the typewriter and the rotary-dial telephone.

In the past, spontaneous political comment often came with the election of a new caucus; the leadership looked on, terrified of rookie missteps. It is difficult to pinpoint when such spontaneity went away, though as Stephen Harper, Gilles Duceppe, and Justin Trudeau all laid down increasingly rigid controls on their caucuses, political operatives everywhere took note.

Dorion was thirty-six when she was elected to the Assemblée nationale in 2018. An actor, she had studied at the Conservatoire d’art dramatique and had earned a bachelor’s in international relations and international law at the Université du Québec à Montréal, as well as a master’s in political science from King’s College London. In the summer of 2012, she was an unsuccessful candidate for Option nationale. Six years later, she ran as a QS candidate in the working-class Quebec City riding of Taschereau.

Dorion was raised by a single mother. Her father, a Quebec City lawyer who left the family when she was young, was mocked, vilified, and destroyed by the shock jock André Arthur. Years later, he won a defamation case that gave her enough money to study abroad and travel widely. Terrific —“except my pops was dead.”

The 2018 nomination meeting was a triumph. In her speech, Dorion talked about the illnesses of our era: “Solitude, psychological distress, the destruction of entire territories, wars, misery, the disappearance of magnificent species and unique cultures in the world, the loss of meaning, the rising waters, the breakdown of the future — we’ve got enough to write millions of Shakespearean tragedies without having to invent anything.” The QS leadership was there, beaming.

No sooner was Dorion nominated than her party-appointed campaign manager started to scold her. She needed better clothing and shoes. She should stop using anglicisms. And she should never swear. Dorion began to realize that this advice encapsulated everything she hated about politics. She was reminded of a New Democrat elected to Parliament in the Orange Wave of 2011, a hippie-ish woman who had impressed her with her naturalness. A few months later, the MP had been transformed into a lifelike model from an insurance company commercial. Dorion vowed this would not happen to her. As a result, her sweatshirt became a story, if not the story, for weeks.

Once elected, Dorion found herself run ragged by the demands of her constituency — opposing a new tunnel under the St. Lawrence, linking Quebec City and Lévis; supporting Muslims facing waves of hatred; saving a church threatened with demolition; defending the Quebec City tramway project — and still doing her duty in the Assemblée nationale. All the while, she was facing attacks in the press and constant disapproval from her leadership.

In a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t, Dorion was roasted when she chose to campaign for a QS candidate in a by-election instead of attending a party convention in Montreal. Nadeau-Dubois had warned her that she would be attacked for hiding, but the flood of scornful disbelief was remarkable. (Some of it was echoed by journalists who went on to become ministers in the current Legault government.) The attacks took their toll. “The pain becomes real, physical and psychological at the same time,” she writes. “A tightness in the stomach that refuses to go away, a repetitive thought one can’t stick in a drawer. Insomnia, interior disorder, a constant feeling of crushed lungs. A moment comes quickly when the incentives to be invisible and docile to avoid a new episode of intimidation acquire a real attraction.”

Perhaps inevitably, her activism in the community attracted more attention than the interventions by party leaders in the Assemblée nationale — and the imbalance provoked accusations that she was not a team player. “Catherine, you are an excellent trumpeter. Perhaps the best,” the co-leader Manon Massé told her. “But you are not playing with the orchestra. You are playing your own tune while the others are playing our tune together. That can’t work, you understand?”

Dorion retorted that she was in fact playing her part. “Transport, media, heritage, the elderly, legislation on the status of the artist, study of credits, committee meetings, conferences, interviews, public education on the web,” she said. “I am there with my trumpet, and I play the hell out of what’s written on the sheet. What you don’t like is that after my job in the orchestra, I take the liberty of leaving the trench and jamming in bars with other musicians, people who want to change the world, but who don’t believe much in what goes on here.” She did not point out the obvious: that journalists were more interested in what was going on outside the Assemblée nationale and that, instead of figuring out how to use that interest to its advantage, the party brass was asking her to stay in the corridor, waiting for its signal.

Dorion’s account of her descent into depression is alternated with chapters on the loss of leisure time, the price and pressures facing working parents, the loss of traditional domestic skills, and her sympathy for the anti-vaxxers who were shunned and marginalized (though she still disagrees with them).

Part memoir, this book is also a humanist appeal for better working conditions, in politics and in everyday life. The irony is that Dorion’s criticisms of Québec solidaire leaders have driven much coverage of her book, just as her clothing drove much of the coverage of her four years in office. Nonetheless, her story represents a warning for idealists considering entering politics. Unfortunately, her account of the pressures on elected members may well discourage them from running.

Graham Fraser is the author of Sorry, I Don’t Speak French and other books.