Hello, this is Dan Bilefsky, a Canadian correspondent for the New York Times in Montreal, where Senator Kamala Harris spent her often overlooked teenage years.
During the U.S. Vice Presidential Debate on Wednesday, Ms. Harris, a former California attorney general, followed her case against the Trump presidency. But for a month now I’ve been trying to understand another Kamala: the disco-dancing youth who was shaped by their formative years at a multicultural high school in Montreal in the late 1970s.
[Read: In Canada, Kamala Harris, a Disco-Dancing Teenager, Yearned for Home].
The task resonated particularly well with me because my childhood had overlapped with that of Ms. Harris. Although I didn’t know Ms. Harris, I grew up in Montreal near Westmount, a few blocks from where she lived with her mother Shyamala Gopalan Harris and her sister Maya. I was in high school around the same time as Ms. Harris. And my father, a kidney specialist, worked at the Jewish General Hospital, where her mother pioneered breast cancer research.
We also share another connection: while young Kamala was channeling Diana Ross in an all-girl troupe where her nom de disco was Angel, I pretended to be John Travolta and clumsily turned my older sister on to the soundtrack from “Saturday Night” fever. “
Two subjects stood out when I told the story. One is the infinite influence of mothers in shaping who we become. The other was how the Canadian model of multiculturalism – in which we are part of a mosaic of cultures rather than a melting pot – embraced a young American girl homesick for California.
Ms. Harris’ mother, born in India, had divorced her Jamaica-born husband, a Stanford economist, when the family arrived in Montreal when Ms. Harris was 12 years old.
In Montreal, Dr. Gopalan Harris had his own laboratory and worked 10-hour days and on weekends. I came across an article in the Montreal Gazette in 1985 about leading women scientists in Canada that featured her.
“Researchers live under terrible pressure. It is very difficult not to take your work home at night, ”she told the newspaper. “Children don’t understand the work pressure,” she added. She credited young Kamala and her sister for forcing them to “turn off at least for a few hours when I got home.”
Dr. Richard Margolese, Professor of Surgical Oncology at McGill University in Montreal, who with Dr. Gopalan Harris told me that she had asked to be called Shyamala. Their independent trail made an impression. “Here she was in this strange country, a single mother with two young daughters doing important breast cancer research in an area where there weren’t many women at the time,” he recalled.
Wanda Kagan, Ms. Harris’ best friend from high school, lived with her family for a while trying to escape an abusive stepfather. She told me that Dr. Gopalan Harris made sure she was given counseling and treated like family, including making sure she and the Harris sisters studied every day after school.
“Her mother sometimes wore bell-bottom jeans from the 1970s. She was cheeky, but also strict, ”Mrs. Kagan told me. “She was a proud Indian.”
Ms. Kagan said Ms. Harris was largely protected from the political upheaval in Quebec when she was at Westmount High from 1978 to 1981. But she said she believed her friend’s progressive policies were influenced by growing up in a humanistic country with universal health care and less racial strife than the United States.
Her childhood friends remembered a confident young woman who showed seeds of activism, found cultural validation in her black identity, and complained about French lessons.
Mara Rudzitis, an art teacher at Westmount High for 22 years, recalled that Kamala would sometimes spend her lunch break doing art in the arts and crafts studio where students came to paint and make ceramic masks.
“We didn’t get the cream of the crop at Westmount High – a lot of these kids went to private schools – we got more of the sour cream,” she told me. “Children are very impressible at this age and Kamala has been exposed to people from all walks of life and nationalities.”
Ms. Kagan told me that while Ms. Harris was a hardworking student, due to her limited knowledge of French, prior to arriving in Canada, she was put at a disadvantage in a high school where students from the French Immersion Department received more attention and resources. Ms. Harris arrived in Montreal and knew a handful of French words she had learned from ballet class. She was accepted into the English department, Ms. Kagan said.
Now, however, Ms. Harris is one of Westmount High’s most famous alumni (Leonard Cohen studied there too). During a recent politics class held there, students discussed Ms. Harris’ records as California attorney general, including whether she had done enough to mitigate racial gaps in the US criminal justice system.
The members of the class were also dizzy that they had entered the same halls.
“Students, especially black girls, are motivated to see a black woman from Westmount High running for one of the highest political office in the world,” said Robert Green, who teaches the class.
This week I covered a bizarre case whose glaring details made headlines in Canada and China: a Chinese immigrant who killed his family member and chopped him into 108 pieces. Some observers say his sentence of 10 years and six months is too short.
A Toronto producer wants to bring “blindness” to theater-starved Toronto. The sound installation contains an adaptation of José Saramago’s dystopian novel about a society affected by an epidemic.
My colleague Christine Hauser wrote about the harrowing case of New York grandparents kidnapped and brought to Canada.
In the “Times Travel” section, readers were asked to send “love letters” to their favorite destinations in order to receive the popular “52 Places to Go” feature. All over Canada, what’s worth mentioning?
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