How nursing prepared Gracia Kasoki Katahwa to be Mayor
When Gracia Kasoki Katahwa worked at the Jewish General Hospital, her direct superior made a prediction: The young nurse would be Minister of Health one day.
“She fought for her ideas and demonstrated a lot of leadership,” recalls Mona Abou Sader, Ms. Katahwa’s head nurse. “When she was convinced of something, nothing could stop her. I told her several times that I saw her as a future Minister of Health.”
That dynamic nurse hasn’t reached a ministerial post yet, but she has notched up a significant political achievement: She was elected Mayor of Côte-des-Neiges—Notre-Dame-de-Grâce last fall, making history as the first Black woman to lead a Montreal borough.
Mayor Katahwa says her pathway to the top spot in the city’s most populous borough was shaped at the bedsides and in the hallways of the JGH, where she was hired in 2009 and remained for over a decade.
“The years I spent as a nurse at the Jewish General Hospital prepared me well for my role as mayor,” she said in an interview with the 360°. From the moment she was hired, she says, she could see that the JGH placed great importance on nurses’ leadership within health care.
“I say it every opportunity I get: I developed my nursing leadership role because of the culture at the Jewish General Hospital. They understand that nurses are at the heart of health care and play an advocacy role for patients and their families,” she says.
“The years I spent as a nurse at the JGH prepared me well for my role as mayor.”Mayor Gracia Kasoki Katahwa
Mayor Katahwa sees common qualities in nursing and political life. Both require empathy, being a good listener, and building partnerships to find solutions and deliver services. In February, her two roles came together when she administered COVID-19 vaccines at a community centre for CIUSSS West-Central Montreal.
“I’m the mayor,” she says, “but I remain a nurse.”
Mayor Katahwa was hired by Ms. Abou Sader after graduating from Laval University’s nursing program. She spent more than eight years as a Nurse Clinician in the Vascular, Thoracic and Otolaryngology (ENT) Surgical Unit, followed by two years with Infection Prevention and Control. During that time, she also obtained a Master’s degree in public administration.
Adila Zahir, Chief of Service in Infection Prevention and Control, also recalls Mayor Katahwa’s leadership skills, which included heading an initiative on hand hygiene. “She stood up for good causes and was very determined. She was also a strong team player and brought positive energy to the team,” says Ms. Zahir.
Beyond the skills she acquired, Mayor Katahwa came away from her years at the JGH with a lasting impression: The way the hospital embraced diversity, to everyone’s benefit.
“I appreciated its capacity to work together for the common good, regardless of where you come from, what you look like, your religion or the language you speak,” Mayor Katahwa says. “Everyone focuses on the well-being of patients and their families and sets their differences aside to reach that goal.”
That translated into something as simple as finding someone who can speak to a patient in their native tongue. “It can mean a Filipino orderly speaking to a patient who’s Jamaican and speaks patois or English … accents are different but everyone tries to understand one another.”
She adds: “It’s a great example that, personally, I would like society to achieve.”
“I appreciated the JGH’s capacity to work together for the common good, regardless of where you come from, what you look like, your religion or the language you speak.”Mayor Gracia Kasoki Katahwa
The election of the Congolese-born mayor gained widespread attention. Benoît-Pierre Laramée, Canada’s ambassador to the Democratic Republic of Congo, tweeted out a message after her victory last November: “Congratulations to Gracia Kasoki Katahwa for her victory in Montreal’s municipal elections. A nurse of Congolese origin who’s making history.”
Mayor Katahwa says she hopes her victory will inspire others and “normalize” the presence of visible minorities in positions of power. She believes that while she encountered discrimination and systemic racism over the years, she was able to ultimately achieve her goals. “I don’t want to tell people that it’s easy. But at the end of the day, it’s possible.”
Still, she hopes to see organizations offer more opportunities for minorities to rise within the ranks, ensuring that “diversity can be seen at all levels,” she adds.
As for Ms. Abou Sader’s prediction about being a government minister one day, the mayor recalls the words of her head nurse with a laugh.
“She figured I’d end up in politics,” Mayor Katahwa says, adding that she wants to focus on the needs in her borough for now. “I don’t know what my future holds, but I’m happy where I am. There are so many projects and challenges to meet, and I’m happy to be able to make a contribution.”