POLITICS
06/30/2019 20:03 EDT | Updated 08/12/2020 13:26 EDT

Kamala Harris, U.S. Vice-Presidential Hopeful, Has Canadian Connections

She spent several years in Montreal as a teen.

SAUL LOEB via Getty Images
Kamala Harris participates in the second Democratic primary debate on June 27, 2019. 

This story has been updated in light of presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden choosing Harris as his vice presidential running mate.

U.S. Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Kamala Harris is definitely a U.S. citizen, contrary to conspiracy theories on the internet. But many people may not know that Harris has a unique connection to Canada — Montreal to be exact.

The California senator’s parents got divorced when she was seven. At 12, she moved to Montreal with her sister, Maya, and mom, breast cancer scientist Shyamala Gopalan.

Gopalan held a research position at the city’s Jewish General Hospital, and pioneered a method of assessing cancerous tissue that became standard at the hospital and other health-care facilities across Canada. She was also an associate professor at McGill University. She held both positions for 16 years, according to her 2009 obituary.

Associated Press
In this undated photo provided by the Kamala Harris campaign in April 2019, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, 25, holds her baby, Kamala.

In a 1985 Montreal Gazette story, Gopalan explained that having children may have hindered her career in the short run, but Kamala and Maya were positive influences on focus her in Montreal.

“Children don’t understand work pressures. They want your attention now. When my two children were young, I always found I was forced to turn off at least for a few hours when I got home and I think in the long run that benefited me,” she told the newspaper.

During the family’s time in Canada, Harris and her sister successfully organized a protest with other children to overturn their apartment’s policy against playing in the yard.

Facebook/SenatorKamalaHarris
Kamala Harris's Howard University graduation photo.

Harris graduated from Westmount High School, located in a Montreal suburb, in 1981 and went on to major in political science and economics at Howard University in Washington D.C.

In a 1981 Westmount yearbook, the then-16 year old Harris described her favourite pastime as “dancing with Midnight Magic,” a group she founded with her friend Wanda Kagan.

“We performed in community centres in front of elderly people or danced at fundraisers,” Kagan said. “Outside of our studies, dance took up a lot of our time.”

Canadian Press
Kamala Harris, now a U.S. Senator and Democratic hopeful, is seen in a high school yearbook entry from Westmount.

Kagan noted that Harris’s success made sense given their time in school together.

“In reality, I’m not surprised by what she’s accomplished because she’s a fighter… She’s strong, independent and has always fought for the rights of others.”

The 54-year-old Democrat has been a rising star for years. She was the first female, first black and first Asian American person to hold the role of district attorney in San Francisco and of attorney general in California. She is the second black woman elected to the U.S. Senate, according to the Atlantic.

Associated Press
Kamala Harris, right, receives the oath of office on Jan. 8, 2004, in San Francisco. In the center is Harris' mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, who holds a copy of "The Bill of Rights."

McGill academic advisor and Westmount alum Paul Olioff told the Toronto Star, Harris “gave off an aura suggesting she was poised for success,” during her time at the school.

“To have to have that kind of role model (for the students) is beyond all expectations,” Westmount guidance counsellor Karen Allen said.

But, she doesn’t seem to hold any particular attachment to her time in Canada.

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

With a file from The Canadian Press

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