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.
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.
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.
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