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July 7, 2022 | Alumni

‘Hart House was my North Star’ says U of T alumna now working in the Prime Minister’s Office

By Megan Mueller

Vandana Fatima Kattar and Justin Trudeau sit in armchairs in an office, next to a table of books and documents.

Vandana Fatima Kattar and the Right Honourable Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, planning his schedule in 2021. All images courtesy Vandana Fatima Kattar


Sixteen years ago, U of T undergrad Vandana Fatima Kattar (BA 2008 SMC) found her calling in the Hart House Student Social Justice Committee; today, the St. Michael’s College graduate works in Canada’s highest political office.

Kattar is living proof of U of T's aspirations to foster a community with a resolute commitment to the principles of equity and justice, and support students in becoming well‐rounded individuals, compassionate leaders and peace-focused global citizens. The Faculty of Arts & Science student, double majoring in political science and history, was deeply engaged in the Hart House Student Social Justice Committee before graduating from St. Michael’s College in 2008; and today, she is Director of Operations, Outreach and Planning in the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada.

Portrait photo of Vandana Fatima Kattar smiling.
Vandana Fatima Kattar

Kattar’s CV is impressive. She has worked in the PM’s Office in a variety of roles, increasing in stature, since 2018. Prior to this, she was Director of Operations for the Minister of Innovation, Science and Economic Development.

Describing herself as “the Prime Minister’s outward-facing person” in her current role, Kattar oversees the operations outreach team that determines the PM’s schedule, foci and activities. “I basically connect the PM to Canadians – everything from where he’s touring in the country, what are the key messages and visuals for the tour, who are the stakeholders and how are we reconnecting with different types of Canadians – young Canadians, racialized Canadians, etc.,” she explains.

Each stop on these tours that Kattar maps out has genuine impact. For example, in late March 2022, she oversaw the PM’s West Coast trip where he visited a school to connect with young people and a Ukrainian bakery to support the people of Ukraine. Then he travelled to Williams Lake. “We spent a day with the First Nations people talking about the healing process. We visited the Residential School where they had found unmarked graves. The PM went upstairs and saw where the kids had been hiding and where they etched their names.”

 

Hart House is, to me, the heart of U of T. It was like the anchor for me.

Kattar’s path to social justice began in her undergrad years. “U of T’s a very big school. I was looking for belonging, which is hard. And it's often your first time living away from home,” she says.

So, she began going to the Hart House Fitness Centre where she met a fourth-year student who urged her to get involved at the House. She describes how the House quickly became the epicentre of her university experience: “Hart House is, to me, the heart of U of T. I didn't feel a lot of belonging until I got to the House, to be honest. It was like the anchor for me. It was like a home more than an iconic building.”

She was instantly drawn to the Social Justice Committee. “I'm shy by nature, but something about this Committee at Hart House spoke to me,” she says, emphasizing: “Most of my career today is built on this kind of work: labour, inclusion and equity.”

When she joined the Committee in second year, she immersed herself in the issues of the day – mainly Darfur, a heartbreaking conflict that commenced in 2003.

What was she hoping to gain? “I wanted to talk to like-minded people and to learn. My world was very small, you know? I wanted to meet people who knew about things that were happening in the world.

“In the Committee, I was very inspired by the people around me. They were so worldly. I wanted to be around them, to listen to them. That truly helped to shape me. That's how I found myself.”
 

Vandana Fatima Kattar and Justin Trudeau chat, sitting on opposite sides of a table.
Vandana Fatima Kattar and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau strategizing about key issues in 2020

Kattar’s foundational underpinnings were shaped by the Hart House Student Social Justice Committee. Her experiences in the Committee influenced how she perceived the world. They shaped her thoughts and prepared her for a political career by providing a vital framework around social justice issues.

“The Hart House Social Justice Committee was like my North Star that determined how I wanted to go into the world and take a role that makes an impact. The Committee was really where I got that guiding light. That's the path I followed. Shortly after the Committee work, I went into politics.”

She elaborates: “My Committee work genuinely assisted me in understanding that I could do more. There are so many areas to help, so many issues and situations that don't make mainstream news but they're happening around the world.”

She cites the work she has undertaken with the Prime Minister on the Ukraine, and in Afghanistan and Ethiopia. “I work on the community side of things, people who are experiencing inequity or injustice themselves,” she says.
 

The Hart House Social Justice Committee was like my North Star that determined how I wanted to go into the world and take a role that makes an impact.

The Committee also offered practical tools or skills for Kattar, the first one being: find your voice.

There was one person on the Committee who encouraged her to speak up, share her opinion and take action. “I learned how to use my voice like a champion,” as a result, she says.

She also recognized the art and value of compromise and learned how to work with people with differing views and strong opinions. “Everyone in the Committee had a view of what was important to them; they had different priorities. And in today’s world, there are so many parties and complex situations. It’s important to realize others’ perspectives because you don't always know where your blind spots are, right? The Committee's where I learned this.”

Malala Yousafzai and Vandana Fatima Kattar standing together.
Malala Yousafzai with Vandana Fatima Kattar

Kattar’s most treasured memories about the Committee centre around the people, the community. “Being across the table with immensely interesting people. Feeling like you’re part of something; you’re all in it together. We can make an impact.

“My fondest memory is walking up the stairs, getting to that room and being with the people in the Committee … That's where my heart goes.”

Her advice to students is golden: “Don't be shy. Put your hand up. Find an MP that you like and volunteer for them. Just go for it. Jump for opportunities. You're young; you don't know which door will open for you. It's not always a linear path. The path to politics or activism is kind of wonky, but you'll get there. Take every opportunity.”

Kattar encourages students to savour the journey. “Take your time with it. Don’t rush to the end; enjoy the experiences along the way. When I started, I wasn't a director. It took me years. Every door I knocked on for an issue, every sign I put up taught me something that got me to where I am now. Those experiences, and the people you work with, are going to shape you more than you think.”

 

Originally published by Hart House

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