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Reporter Debrief: Montreal Reacts To Kamala Harris' Win

Vice president elect Kamala Harris stands behind a podium
Tony Avelar
Associated Press File
Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris, of California, waves to the crowd as she formally launches her presidential campaign at a rally in her hometown of Oakland, Calif. Harris made history Saturday, Nov. 7, as the first Black woman to be vice president-elect.

This weekend, Kamala Harris made history by becoming the first ever woman of color to be Vice President-elect. Today, we check in with a Montreal-based reporter about the city's reaction to her win, and what some of her former classmates from her Canadian high school thought about the election. 

Our guest is:

Broadcast live on Monday, Nov. 9, 2020 at noon. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

Note: Vice President-elect Kamala Harris moved to Montreal when she was 12. She attended public school there, and graduated from Westmount High School in 1981.

Jane Lindholm: Can you talk a little bit first about why Kamala Harris and her mother and sister moved to Montreal in the first place, back in the 1970s?

Chloe Ranaldi: Yes, definitely. So Harris’s mom actually had a teaching job at McGill University’s affiliated Jewish General Hospital, where she worked as a researcher. D­uring that time, Harris and her sister went to Westmount High.

We got a chance to talk to some of her former classmates. We spoke with Wendy Kagan, and her story was especially powerful because she talked about how, when she was younger, she was actually molested by her stepfather and she turned to Kamala Harris for someone to confide in. Harris actually told her mom about this and her mom got involved, and then Kagan moved in with the family, I think, for the rest of that year.

And so Kagan was just telling us about how special Harris was, and how she always was looking out for other people and how big her heart was. And I think that that story was especially powerful.

She said she’s still in contact with Kamala Harris and she said that she feels that Harris is probably more sensitive to issues about women and people in that kind of situation, and has really become an advocate for women.

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Tell us a little bit more about what Westmount High was like and what was happening in Montreal in the late 1970s and early 1980s, that would have shaped Kamala Harris’ experience at the school.

Yeah. So I want to say that, especially in Montreal, it's a very diverse, very multicultural area. So I think that was especially significant for her, to be there as someone of color. And even now, Westmount High actually tweeted about her, kind of giving her a huge congratulations and [saying they were] super proud, saying “Congratulations to our Westmount High Knight.”

And even here in Montreal, we had our mayor, Valérie Plante, who congratulated her for breaking down the glass ceiling.

I believe at the time as well, Chloe, there was a lot of tension in Quebec. There was, you know, the strong separatist movement, and Kamala Harris would have experienced a lot of tension. She had moved to Westmount High from a French speaking high school where she attended for a little while when she first moved – it sounds like she was quite homesick for California. She would have had a sort of eye-opening perspective on Canadian politics at the time, too.

Yeah, and there was the [Quebec Independence] referendum as well in the 1990s, so I could only imagine how challenging that must have been. Hopefully, because she had a French background that must have helped, but there were tensions, kind of, between languages in Quebec at that time.

So as you mentioned, you've been talking with some of her classmates. What do they say Ms. Harris was like when she was in high school?

I spoke with Dean Smith. He's an athletic coach now, and he's one of her former classmates. And he was talking about just how kind she was to everyone, even 40 years ago, how she was always smiling. He said the person that we see today on the TV is still the same person that he remembers.

He was also talking about how she was really kind to everyone, regardless of their skin color or gender, and how Harris was always somebody to look up to. And he said that even today, young people in Montreal – boys and girls – can always look up to her. He said that this win is a win for a woman of color and for young people who are watching, who see her as an inspiration.

It was funny: he's an athletic coach, and he was just saying that this is like the championships and to be happy that the good guys won, because she really is a good guy.

And then… he was saying that she’s really someone that [shows] for young people, regardless of where you come from, if you are an immigrant, you can succeed and if you work hard, you could definitely get to whatever you dream of.

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Do you think it's mainly classmates or those with a personal connection to Kamala Harris who were feeling this connection? Or did that sort of happiness, or reaction or bond with Kamala Harris as vice president-elect extend to others in Montreal? What was the reaction in Montreal in general to the news that Biden and Harris where the projected winners?

Yes. When it was announced that Biden had won, you could hear people honking their cars and celebrating downtown in Montreal. And I think for so many Montrealers, like we were talking about before, it really was about Kamala Harris. We took so much pride in her having lived here even for just a few years.

It was funny – on Saturday, CBC sent me out with a cameraman to kind of just get people's reactions on the street. And while we were driving in the plateau area, kind of central to downtown, someone had just raised an American flag from their balcony and they were cheers-ing with champagne.

And I remember, with my cameraman, we were just honking at them. We asked them if they wanted to come on TV and they agreed, so they came downstairs. They were two former New Yorkers and they were talking about just how happy they were, how proud they were to be American in that moment, and just how, I guess, satisfied they were after all those long days of waiting and kind of refreshing their phone to see who had won with such a close race.

More from VPR: ‘We’re Here To Celebrate’: Vermonters Respond To Biden’s Win

One person who I spoke with – his name is Max Clark – it was funny because he mentioned that he didn't necessarily vote for Biden at first. And then, he had kind of decided to support him during the election, the presidential run. It was interesting because he was just talking about how happy he is that Kamala Harris will be the next vice president-elect, and I think that was very powerful.

And then another person who I spoke with, Amy Rocheleau, she was just talking about how, after this long and stressful time of not being sure who was going to be president, she was just happy that it was Joe Biden and not Trump. And she was hoping to kind of see, I guess, some change coming for the next four years.

So some of the expats you've spoken with in particular are pleased about this change in who's in charge in American politics?

Yes, exactly – definitely. And I think that for some of the people who I spoke to, I think Montreal is kind of… I want to say more left-leaning; more Democratically aligned. We’re pretty liberal as a city. This is such a big urban center. And I think because of that, people really did kind of side, or kind of root for Joe Biden to win, especially on issues like health care.

Something that many of us here in Quebec take for granted is our universal health care system. So I think on those kinds of policies that we really sided with Joe Biden. And then, also, [on] Biden's approach to the pandemic… Here in Quebec, we have pretty strict lockdown measures. So I think that a lot of us are kind of hoping to see that, as well, maybe in the U.S.

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You're noting a couple of areas where policy is going to be very important. Certainly the border closure, which has been going on now for several months and looks poised to continue, perhaps even into the summer time. And then also: health care policy, which is a big area of focus for Democrats and for all Americans, as we grapple with what our health care policy could be. Do you hear people, in fact, talking about how they think Kamala Harris’ experience in Montreal might have an impact on U.S.-Canadian relations when Biden and Harris are in the White House?

I mean, I want to say that people are hopeful that maybe she will… be more empathetic towards Montreal, or I guess towards Canada in general and kind of more sensitive to issues or maybe tensions and different foreign policies.

Like what? Do you have any in particular that people are talking about beyond the sort of immediate issue of border policy? Where are they hoping for more friendly reaction, given the typically friendly relationship that Canada and the U.S. have?

It's a tough one… Especially with business, we want to see as much support as possible. And then, like you're mentioning, hopefully [support] for opening up the border, of course, when the time is right, that they'll make the right decision.

More from VPR: ‘We Could Expect The Border To Stay Closed At Least Till Next Summer’

Kamala Harris doesn't talk much about her years in Canada. It's not a focus in her autobiography, and it hasn't been an issue that's come up much on the campaign trail. And that may be a little bit surprising, because previous candidates on both sides with significant experience living in other countries have found that sometimes that gets questioned. You know, they get questioned about their alliances or loyalty. And that didn't seem to come up with Kamala Harris – either in her bid for the presidency or once she got on the Biden ticket.

I'm curious about that, but also, if people in Quebec are disappointed that she doesn't highlight her formative years…in high school in Montreal. That's a big time for any young person. Are they just expressing excitement now, or is there a sense that, ‘Come on, you've got to talk more about that?’

I think a lot of us kind of understand because it only was five years. But of course, high school are those formative years. But either way, we're just proud that she was here and maybe down the line, she might give us kind of a tip of the hat or some kind of homage. But no, you're right. She hasn't she hasn't talked about it very much!

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Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Emily was a Vermont Edition producer at Vermont Public Radio until September 2021.
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