When Ted Cruz ran for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, Canadians watched with mild interest. Cruz, after all, was born in Calgary, Alberta, and although birthers may differ, could well have been the first foreign-born president of the United States. Alas, that other fellow bested Cruz in the primaries and went on to win the election, so Ted’s time as a toddler in Canada remains a curiosity in the Texas senator’s bio.
Another U.S. Senator, California’s Kamala Harris, also stands a realistic chance of becoming president and she too spent a significant chunk of her life in Canada. Unlike Cruz, however, Harris spent the majority of her teen years in Montreal, during one of the most turbulent periods in recent Canadian history.
Harris was 12 in February, 1976, when she and her younger sister Maya followed her mother Shyamala Gopolan to Montreal, where mom worked as a breast cancer researcher at the Jewish General Hospital and teacher at McGill University for some 16 years.
Nineteen seventy-six is a year etched in the Canadian psyche as an epic shift in the evolution of the federation. In November, the sovereignist Parti Québecois (PQ) came to power for the first time, determined to arrest what it saw as the systematic erosion and erasure of the French language and culture in the only majority francophone jurisdiction in North America.
Less than a year later, the PQ passed Bill 101, the charter of the French language, which brought about sweeping changes in Quebec, notably asserting the primacy of French in government, business, education and signage. The latter two categories have a special relevance for Kamala Harris’s stint in Montreal.
Presumably thinking her daughters should learn a bit of the native language, Gopolan enrolled them in a French primary school upon their arrival in Montreal. Harris writes in her memoirs The Truths We Hold, “The thought of moving away from sunny California in February, in the middle of the school year, to a French-speaking foreign city covered in 12 feet of snow was distressing, to say the least.”
Her experience at the French school was also distressing: “I used to joke that I felt like a duck, because all day long at our new school I’d be saying, ‘Quoi? Quoi? Quoi?’ ”
Her mother, out of pity or mercy, transferred Kamala to an English secondary school, Westmount High School, whose previously best-known graduate was Leonard Cohen.
Had Gopalan and daughters arrived in Montreal a year later, it is probable they would have been ineligible to attend English public school under the provisions of Bill 101. With only certain exceptions, all immigrants from outside Canada are required to send their children to French schools. Had that been the case, a potential future U.S. president likely would have been fluent in French.
The other noteworthy aspect of Kamala Harris’s four years at Westmount High School in particular, is that the words “High” and “School” were removed from the building under the signage provisions of Bill 101. To this day, the only word on the building to identify it is “Westmount.” Google Map it.
Despite the scant reminiscences of her time in Montreal Harris recounts in her book, it would come as a surprise such a savvy young woman, with politically active parents, herself famously bused to a newly desegregated school, would be oblivious to the political and social upheaval taking place in Montreal at the time.
This graduate of the WHS class of ‘81 would surely have been keenly aware of the dire campaign for the May, 1980, referendum on sovereignty-association and the subsequent efforts at reconciliation in the wake of its defeat by federalist forces.
In the flood of coverage of Harris’s Montreal connection since she emerged as a Democratic star a few years ago, former classmates said young Kamala was popular with all groups at the diverse school, and active in the WHS student association and various clubs and even formed a dance group.
Back then there were also stirrings of her quest for justice, and a taste for power. She tells the story of how she and her sister organized a demonstration in front of their apartment building to protest a policy that banned children from playing on the lawn. They won.
Perhaps whatever she might have learned in Canada about effecting democratic change, about universal health care, particularly with a mother in the field, about people with differences finding a way to live together, might have an influence on Kamala Harris should the task fall to her to help make America better. And one suspects Canadians will be watching this former Montrealer as if she were one of their own.