A year after what was an unlikely breakthrough in last fall’s municipal elections, it’s safe to say that Gracia Kasoki Katahwa has settled into her tasks as Mayor of Côte des Neiges-NDG and is doing what it takes to make a difference in the lives of people in Montreal’s most populous borough.
Moving beyond her first year on the job, she invited The CONTACT to her offices to talk about some of her achievements and her focus for the coming year.
The conversation that ensued was easy and illuminating, mostly because of Katahwa’s engaging personality and her eloquence.
She exudes the confidence of someone who elevated herself to an upper-management position in the health care system, after obtaining her nursing degree from Laval University and working for several years as a nurse clinician at the Jewish General Hospital.
She also attained a master’s degree in public administration.
It was her path to becoming the first Black woman to serve as mayor of a Montreal borough.
But as a rookie politician, she found herself in an arena where she was in the service of 180,000 people whose needs are sometimes diverse and conflicting, Katahwa had to learn quickly.
Her first lesson on the job was that “change management” took a little more time and effort than she imagined.
“When you come into politics you want to change things, you want to (bring in) new policies according to your core values and those of the party that you’re with but you know that not everyone will agree with your policies or the way that you want to do things,” she says.
Change management, she says, is finding ways to consider the many different opinions (among constituents) as well as the people who don’t speak up for themselves because they don’t have the time nor the resources and maybe connections as well as working with partners to implement the policies that you want.
In order to hear from the people in her borough and better relate to neighbourhood issues, Katahwa says it was important for her to get as close as possible to them and that’s why their recent purchase of a home in NDG was such a big deal to her and her husband.
She also made it her priority to meet with many of the organizations and groups in the borough.
“From the start I asked my team to meet with a lot of community organizations because they are the ones that are in contact with the different sectors, neighbourhoods and group, they are the ones that are able to tell me about the issue.
We can’t do anything without those organizations so in the last budget we tried to increase their funding probably, still not adequately but at least give them a little more this year and I will continue to meet with them.”
She also attended more than her fair share of events over this past year, which she also found to be effective in helping her learn more about the needs of people across the borough.
“Those events brought me in touch with many people who live, work or have interest in Cote-des-NDG.”
And in her zest to continue to get to know her constituents, she has been doing the door-to-door routine as if she still in the campaign and points to the benefits of learning first hand about ways to enhance neighbourhood life in areas such Goyer-Darlington district or the new Triangle community.
As mayor of one of the most culturally diverse boroughs in Montreal, issues of diversity and systemic discrimination are always at her doorsteps.
She says that she and every other elected Black official has a responsibility to address those issues.”
But, it’s just as important for them to act.
“On my part, I’m working with my team to find ways on how we can diversify various levels of management here in Cote des Neiges-NDG to include as many groups as possible whether they are cultural, gender or disabled.”
Inevitably, the recent death of Nicous Spring, the young NDG man who died recently, while in custody of prison officials.
“It’s something we, me and other Black elected officials, spoke about and we agreed that people would want to hear from us but at this point, we have to recognize that it’s a provincial issue and it’s better that we allow the investigation to go on.
But for us at the city level, we have to look at our responsibility in (the Nicous Spring story): when did we loose that child to criminality… (he) is one of the kids that I meet so how did he move from a child to criminality. And that’s where we need to work harder and harder to make sure we loose less kids to criminality.”
That commitment adds to her focus of getting to the core, what ails this society, she says.
“As a bedside nurse at the Jewish General Hospital, I found that we were helping patients to get well but many of them were coming back. That’s when I realized that we had to focus on the things that have an impact on health and prevention, and that’s the opportunity I have as a politician at the municipal level.
As a manager during the pandemic, I realized how much we needed the municipalities to actually save lives because we had to work with the mayors to arrange for vaccinations as well as test and other things. It’s was like an Eureka moment that lead me to municipal politics.”
At 36 years old, Mayor Katahwa wants to be a beacon for young marginalized women who might be questioning their capacity to get involved in politics and serve at the highest level.
“I say to them, look at me: I’m from an immigrant family and I had to get beyond the obstacles also.”
As such, one of her objectives this year, is to start mentoring young people who are considering politics as an option.
She looks back at what she describes as a fulfilling year and remains happy about her decision to enter politics.
“I’m liking it and it would be an honour and privilege to continue to serve as mayor to the people of Cote des Neiges- Notre Dame de Grace.”