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U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris’s classmates from her Canadian high school cheer her potential run for president

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WASHINGTON—In the yearbook photo of the 1981 graduating class at Westmount High School near Montreal, the left hand of a beaming Kamala Harris is resting on the right shoulder of Hugh Kwok.

Kwok went on to run a Montreal car business with his father. Unbeknownst to him, Harris went on to be a U.S. senator. She’s now contemplating a bid for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, seen here in a May 5 file photo.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris, seen here in a May 5 file photo.  (CHRIS DELMAS / AFP/GETTY IMAGES)

When Kwok was asked in December for his thoughts on his old pal’s potential run, he answered a reporter’s question with a question.

“She’s running for president of what?” he asked in a tone that suggested he thought the answer might be the local Rotary Club.

Informed that it was the presidency of the United States, his voice rose. “No way. Oh my goodness. I can’t believe it,” he said. Then he decided he was supportive of this idea.

“We could use a good president,” he said. “She was a sweet, kind person. Very happy, very social. I’m just very excited for her, if that’s what she wants to do with her life.”

Harris has said she will decide over the holidays whether to run for president. If she does, she will be considered one of the major candidates in what is expected to be a crowded competition for the Democratic nomination. It is now possible that Westmount, the 145-year-old public school where singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen and hockey legend Art Ross also studied, will produce a U.S. president before it produces a Canadian prime minister.

Harris returned to her native U.S. for university, and she long ago lost touch with most or all of her Westmount acquaintances. But some of them have traded delighted texts and Facebook posts about her ascent. And they are generally not all that surprised.

They remember the California senator, now 54, as an assured, cheery teenager who thrived both in school and on the dance floor. They say she maintained an easy popularity across the subtle divides of a racially and economically diverse student body that drew from both wealthy and lower-income neighbourhoods.

Harris “gave off an aura suggesting she was poised for success,” said Paul Olioff, now an academic adviser at McGill University, who recalled her as a “terrific, confident presence” with an advanced fashion sense.

“Westmount High was a very racially segregated school when we attended, not in a hostile way, but more because of socio-economic divisions. Ms. Harris transcended this, as there were few students she didn’t get along with,” Olioff said in an email.

This is at least the fourth consecutive presidential election in which a major candidate has had family ties to Canada. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who lost the Republican primary to Donald Trump in 2016, was born in Calgary. Former president Barack Obama has a brother-in-law from Burlington.

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As Obama and Cruz know, the “America First” Trump has a talent for portraying an opponent’s links to foreign countries as grounds for voter suspicion. Asked via email how her Westmount years influenced her, Harris expressed no particular fondness for Montreal, Quebec or Canada.

“While my sister Maya and I made great friends and even learned some French, we were happy to return home to California,” she said through a spokesperson.

She did add: “One of the women’s auxiliary groups at the hospital my mother worked at ended up inspiring me to help create an auxiliary group at the Highland Hospital in Oakland later in life.”

Harris, a former San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general, is the California-born daughter of two immigrants to the U.S., both of whom earned PhDs: India-born scientist and breast cancer researcher Shyamala Gopalan Harris and Jamaican-born economics professor Donald Harris.

They divorced when Kamala was a young child. When she was 12, she said, her mother moved to Montreal for a job researching at the Jewish General Hospital and teaching at McGill. Her mother spent 16 years in the job, according to a 2009 family obituary.

Both of Harris’s parents were involved in the U.S. civil rights movement. Sister and fellow Westmount student Maya Harris, who became a lawyer, adviser to Hillary Clinton and television commentator, told the San Francisco Chronicle that Kamala became something of an activist in Quebec at 13 — organizing a successful children’s protest against a no-playing-in-the-yard policy at their apartment building.

In the 1981 Westmount yearbook, Harris thanked her mother and listed “California” as a cherished memory. She said a favourite pastime was “dancing with super six; Midnight Magic.” Old friend Wanda Kagan told the Canadian Press last year that Midnight Magic was their amateur dance troupe, which she said performed at fundraisers and for seniors at community centres.

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is running for president, graduated from Westmount High School in Montreal in 1981.
U.S. Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is running for president, graduated from Westmount High School in Montreal in 1981.  (Submitted by John Dila)

Eyal Dattel, a human resources director in Vancouver, said he recalls his drama classmate as “always a truly nice person” and now sees her as “an ideal candidate for a progressive future.” Dean Smith, a Montreal basketball coach, said he remembers Harris as a hard-studying and likeable student who helped classmates with schoolwork and preferred to spend time with average kids rather than with moneyed elites.

“In my opinion, she’d be a great president, because she’s fair,” he said.

John Dila, a Harris classmate who is now a Harris constituent as a businessman on the California startup scene, said the Westmount students of the day regularly discussed politics.

Harris lived in Quebec at a tense time in local affairs: the provincial government passed its French-language law in 1977, held a referendum on independence in 1980, and, in 1981, opposed the patriation of the Constitution. Dila, who praised Harris at length, said he thinks she understands policy issues better than American colleagues who have had narrower life experiences.

“Having lived in Canada — those are seminal years, and I can’t believe she wasn’t deeply shaped by the handful of years that she was there,” he said.

At least one Westmount classmate is cool to Harris’s candidacy. Gail Clarke described the teenage Harris as “pretend sweet,” lamenting that the senator decided in Grade 11 that she was too unexciting to continue hanging out with. Clarke added: “I do wish Kamala the best.”

Before Harris, Westmount’s most successful politician graduate was Stockwell Day, the Conservative former federal minister and former leader of the Canadian Alliance party.

Even Day, Class of ’67, had positive words about Harris’s bid. He said her experience at a school at once diverse and harmonious would have “given her some great insights into how a multinational population really can work and live together.”

“Her policies as Attorney General in California on things like gun control and criminal justice reform would fit in quite well in Canada,” Day said in an email. “If she runs and wins the presidency, I will definitely reach out to her to see if Westmount High alums can get tickets to her inauguration!”

Daniel Dale is the Star’s Washington bureau chief. He covers U.S. politics and current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @ddale8

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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