The election of Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States of America has spurred interest in a high school situated on Saint Catherine Street, Montreal, Quebec, namely Westmount High School (WHS). The day after she won the election, many cameras were directed at WHS. The formative years of person have a lasting impact – they often form and shape their views on life – which is likely why the media has shown such a keen interest in WHS. As a graduate of WHS, the question posed of me is: Did you know Kamala Harris and what was it like to go to high school with the Vice President of the United States. I remember Kamala Harris from the hallways of WHS, but I do not have any specific memory of her. However, I can speak to the school that she attended from 1978-1981.
Westmount was made up of very wealthy Anglo-Canadians that lived in isolation to the rest of Montreal and the world, often enjoying their own exclusive social clubs. It is home to the Bronfman family, to name a few. WHS served the catchment area of Westmount. WHS was part of the Protestant School Board of Montreal (PSBGM), a school board that had been guaranteed its existence under the Canadian constitution in 1867, even though the majority of the student body was not protestant. The school offered an excellent education, with the privileged parents placing pressure on the school to meet the highest educational standards. The school often scoured the country in search of the very best teachers. By 1976, the school had a higher ranking than most private schools.
The situation changed dramatically in 1976 and the ensuing years. Kamala Harris attended WHS for the period 1978 to 1981. A time of great change for the Anglo community of Montreal. This was a period where the Parti Quebecois, a separatist party, came to power in Quebec and moved towards separation. The result was a mass exodus of Anglo- Quebecers, many of which dominated the economy and that happen to live in Westmount.
The exodus of the Anglo community left WHS in a difficult situation. A school where the catchment area of Westmount could no longer sustain the school. In response, the PSBGM removed all regional restrictions to attract a greater number of students. A school that was once for the wealthy was now open to all. Of course, Westmount was surrounded by a number of less affluent neighbourhoods, which included St Henri (Little Burgundy), Lasalle and Verdun. The parents of surrounding neighbourhoods saw an opportunity to seize on a free education from a school that was highly rated.
After 1976 and during the time that Kamala Harris attended the high school, the school had a very different composition. While I am hesitant to generalize, a third of the school was made up of the children from Westmount that drove to school in Porsche’s, a third from white families that came from working class neighbourhoods – such as Lasalle and Verdun – and a third that came from Little Burgundy – the poorest of neighbourhoods made up of immigrants from the Caribbean, mainly Jamaica.
The integration of these three groups into a single school was anything but harmonious. There was de facto segregation between the black and white student body. Two universes that existed independently of one another, never interacting. There was also de facto segregation between the white children. The white children from Verdun and Lasalle – made up of Irish working class families- did not socialize with the privileged white children from Westmount. The segregation was most noticeable during March break, when most of the children from Westmount would come back from holidays at their cottages, having enjoyed a week of ski in the Laurentians, while the children from Little Burgundy, Verdun and Lasalle did not even own a pair of winter boots.
The result was that by 1980, the ranking of the school dropped dramatically. Out of 400 secondary schools in Quebec, WHS was now one of the five worst high schools in the province. The parents from Westmount reacted and many enrolled their children to private schools located in upper Westmount. Selwyn House and ECS were now the schools of choice. The school was no longer under the control of the parents from Westmount.
The black students from Little Burgundy came from difficult backgrounds. Young teenagers that faced many of the challenges of new Canadians, in addition to acute racism. The result was a group of angry teenagers. The anger became apparent to me at the bus stop in front of the school in 1982. One day, while I was boarding the school bus, I remember a French-Canadian bus driver uttering racist words at a black teenager. The teenager was fearless in his demand for respect. He grabbed the driver by the collar, dragged him off the bus and disfigured him with punches. The event stopped short of a murder, but only because it was intercepted by the only black teacher in the school, who grabbed the teenager by the arm and repeated over and over: “I understand your anger son, but this is not the way. Let him go”. This event marked me – a teacher that understood disenfranchisement well and was looking to ease the pain of a teenager that faced a difficult existence.
WHS encouraged the de facto segregation. The high performers, who were predominantly children from Westmount, were, as a matter of policy, directed into French immersion and the science stream. The parents of these children valued education and even hired the teachers of WHS to be part-time tutors. The students that were not high performers, many of which were from Little Burgundy, Lasalle and Verdun, were directed into typing and wood working. The parents of these children were often less focused on education and many were simply trying to exist.
The absence of a concerted effort by the school to integrate the three groups created a clear divide that lasted until the day I graduated in 1983. As I look back at my experiences, a number of children from Westmount went far in life, occupying positions as judges, academics and lawyers. Many of the disenfranchised children did not. Many were not even armed with basic French languages skills that could allow them to get jobs in Quebec.
In the case of Kamala Harris, she came from a more affluent and educated background. Her mother worked at the Jewish General In Montreal and made a good living. She did not fall into one of the three groups that I have identified and for which I have generalized. Neither did I. However, she lived this Darwinian experience, an experience that marked me and probably her. An experience that where we saw first hand how a community perpetuates itself from one generation to another. How the affluent remain affluent and how the disenfranchised remain disenfranchised.