Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante can now add “author” to her resume with the publication of a graphic novel in which she recounts her entry into politics and takes subtle digs at the sexism she’s encountered along the way.
“Okay, Universe: Chronicles of a Woman in Politics,” tells the story of Simone Simoneau — modelled on Plante — a young community organizer who decides to take the plunge into politics by running for a seat on city council.
Published in both English and French and co-authored by illustrator Delphie Côté-Lacroix, the book follows the initially hesitant Simoneau as she learns to fundraise, knock on doors and recruit volunteers.
Plante, 46, said she began to toy with the idea of publishing a book after she won the mayoralty in 2017. Writing a typical political autobiography didn’t appeal, she said.
“For me the graphic novel format was always what I wanted,” she said in a recent interview at her publisher’s offices.
“I think it’s accessible, it can be fun, and I love graphic novels myself.”
The book is based on Plante’s own sketches and anecdotes she began jotting down in 2013, during her first run for a seat on city council. Four years later, she became the first woman elected mayor of Montreal after her surprise defeat of experienced incumbent Denis Coderre.
While the writing and drawings were initially a form of self-care to help her “stay balanced,” she said she eventually came to see that her story might inspire others, especially young girls.
“I wanted to show, and maybe tell, people it’s OK not to have all the keys and codes to do something you think would be a good thing to do or you believe in,” she said.
“Just go for it.”
She began working with Côté-Lacroix on evenings and weekends, taking about two years to finalize the story and illustrations.
Plante said that, much like her character in the book, she had been looking for a new challenge before her entry into politics. Then she received a phone call from left-wing municipal party Projet Montréal, which was looking to diversify its slate of candidates.
In the book, Plante doesn’t shy away from the challenges faced by women who put themselves in the public eye. At one point, one of her character’s posters is defaced by sexist graffiti. In another, her character’s husband gets effusive praise for helping to care for the couple’s children — something the book points out is a given for female political spouses.
While the book “won’t change sexism,” Plante said she hopes it will help highlight the double standards women face.
Three years into her mandate, Plante has had a bumpy year, marked by a global pandemic that has devastated the city’s economy and criticism over her administration’s failure to implement its big visions for affordable housing and transportation. She has also faced anger over what some have described as an anti-car agenda, which includes building bike lanes, eliminating parking spots and temporarily closing some streets to vehicle traffic to create “sanitary corridors.”
At times, that criticism has escalated to the level of death threats.
While some criticism is to be expected, Plante attributes much of the public anger directed her way to the anxiety wrought by the pandemic.
“Not to minimize their actions of being very aggressive, violent or doing death threats, but I like to hope in the future, when people are less stressed and in a better position, things will calm down,” she said.
She also faced criticism earlier this year over her novel itself, with some high-profile commentators questioning her decision to “draw cartoons” as the city was embroiled in the COVID-19 crisis.
Plante dismissed this as unfounded, especially since she says the writing process wrapped up in late 2019.
“People were just kind of trashing the book (without) even reading it, which I thought was sad, because it wasn’t about the content, it was about criticizing the author,” she said. However, she did push back the book’s publication for a few months when the pandemic’s second wave began.
Plante said she would still recommend politics to young people who want to make a difference, even as she acknowledges it’s a “tough” career that comes with unusual levels of public exposure.
“But hopefully people see in the book, the love that you get from your volunteers, it’s a community, it’s people working together,” she said.
“It’s worth it.”