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Kamala Harris’ time in Montreal: ‘You saw a politician establishing herself’

U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris
Kamala Harris, right, protests South African apartheid with classmate Gwen Whitfield in November 1982 on the National Mall.
(Photo courtesy of Kamala Harris)

Even in spring its grounds are encased in snow. When classes are in session, its students wear uniforms to school. They pour out of the Atwater metro stop, clomp along St. Catherine Street and trudge through three sets of yawning oak double doors. They are the students of Westmount High School, and four decades ago one of them was named Kamala Harris.

On the surface it seems an unlikely pairing: a brilliant girl of Jamaican and Indian descent destined to be known as the first Black woman and first Asian American on a U.S. national political ticket, sitting in class in a Montreal-area high school whose alumni include the poet and balladeer Leonard Cohen, the hockey star Art Ross, the architect Moshe Safdie and my mother.

For months this year while living and teaching in Quebec, I looked out on that high school every morning from my third-floor apartment across the street. It did not look like a crucible for leadership. The three-story brick structure did not look like a launching pad for glory. It looked like a sprawling cookie-cutter high school in North America.

But there the young Harris co-founded a dance troupe, negotiated the straits of a diverse high school and brushed up for college at Howard University. She was intense and intellectual, neither pretentious nor precocious. Her classmates thought she was bound for big things.

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“She carried herself in school much the way she did as a senator and presidential candidate,” said Paul Olioff, a classmate who today is an academic advisor in the faculty of science at McGill University. “You saw a politician establishing herself.”

This week that foreign city, the snow of winter only a months-ago memory, embraced its onetime daughter.

TDemocratic presidential nominee
Sen. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden arrive to conduct their first press conference together Wednesday in Wilmington, Del.
(AFP)

Hours after former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. selected Harris as his running mate on the Democratic ticket, Westmount High put out a tweet Tuesday saying it “couldn’t be prouder” of its alumna, who, when she moved to Quebec at age 12, knew only the French she had learned in ballet class in California. (Her mother enrolled her in the Notre-Dame-des-Neiges school to brush up her language.)

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When a group of cancer doctors gathered at 8 a.m. the next day for their weekly meeting at Montreal Jewish General Hospital, they spent the first moments talking about the Harris appointment and, according to the surgical oncologist Harvey Sigman, “remembering her mother and her work here.”

The Montreal Gazette made Harris’ selection the top story on its Wednesday front page.

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Westmount High is the oldest English-speaking high school in Quebec and was, at the time of Harris’ attendance, part of the Protestant School Board, a government unit whose name belies the fact that it governs public schools. That school-governance structure is a reflection of the cultural complexity of the Montreal area, with its two languages and its religious power centers.

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The city once had two NHL teams, the English-oriented Montreal Maroons (Stanley Cup winners, 1926 and 1935) and the beloved francophone institution of the Montreal Canadiens (winners 24 times, most recently in 1993).

With P.V. Gopalan, an upright civil servant and doting patriarch, Kamala Harris forged one of the defining relationships of her life.

Harris lived here in Quebec from 1976 to 1981, at a time when francophones were asserting their rights, when language was weaponized and when separatism was in the air. When Kamala was in grade 10, the sovereigntist leader René Lévesque led the province into a referendum to declare Quebec an independent country. It failed, but the separatist impulse has never died.

Harris and her mother lived in an anglophone enclave where the streets bear the names of English statesmen and military victories.

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The residents of Westmount in Harris’ time ate at Murray’s (where the waitresses with white aprons always asked whether diners wanted rolls or muffins with their roast turkey, mashed potatoes and canned peas); bought hardware goods at Pascal’s (where customers could wander among the ball-peen hammers); bought baked goods at Select Pastry (where Agnes winked as she sneaked an extra mille-feuille confection into the bag); and picked up their groceries at Steinberg’s (the eponymous owners lived nearby). Only Steinberg’s remains, and it has been sold and renamed Metro.

Into this milieu, and into Westmount High — so different from the freshly desegregated schools of Berkeley, Calif., that she had attended earlier — stepped Harris.

“She was a very sweet, outgoing person, very popular, always positive,” said Hugh Kwok, a former classmate who now modifies and repairs high-end automobiles in his Wingho Auto dealership in Montreal.

The school bus ride was less than three miles from one side of Berkeley to the other, but from 1969 to 1973 it transported Carole Porter to an entirely different world.

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She came by that honestly. The descriptions of Shyamala Gopalan Harris from that period bear an eerie similarity to those of her daughter:

“She was confident, assertive, very set in her ways,’’ said Richard Margolese, a professor of surgical oncology at Montreal’s McGill University, affiliated with Jewish General, who worked with Dr. Harris in breast cancer research.

Kamala Harris has said that one of the women’s auxiliary groups at Jewish General inspired her to create an auxiliary group of her own at Highland Hospital in Oakland. Her yearbook entry includes this phrase: “So Thanks to: My mother.’’

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Harris learned to negotiate the straits of a diverse culture at Westmount High. The school at that time had absorbed a number of anglophone high schools that had been shuttered. The student body comprised suburban types, middle-class students, extremely poor young people, a few from Montreal’s Chinatown and some students who had been expelled from private schools for drug dealing or antisocial comportment.

“People had to make friends with people from places they had never even been before,” Olioff said. “Kamala was very good at negotiating between the various communities in a very complex high school ecosystem.”

That, it turns out, was perfect preparation for California politics — and for the national campaign she now undertakes with Biden.

At Westmount High, she learned algebra and conjugated French verbs and dipped into some English literature, but Kamala Harris, class of 1981, apparently picked up another lesson: “Act the way you’d like to be,” begins an admonition often attributed to Leonard Cohen, class of 1951, “and soon you’ll be the way you act.”


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