Celina Caesar-Chavannes talks about the personal attacks she experienced in politics and the lessons she has learned along the way. (Credit: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Celina Caesar-Chavannes talks about the personal attacks she experienced in politics and the lessons she has learned along the way. (Credit: Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Topics: Justice | Politics

MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes on racism in Canadian politics

Celina Caesar-Chavannes recently stepped down from her role as parliamentary secretary to the minister of international development due to negative attention.

 | 

Q: What took you from a medical research entrepreneur to a politician?

A: I was doing an executive MBA at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School in 2013-14. My daughters are very political, so they were talking about the degradation of environmental policy in Canada and our image at the United Nations. I said, “You know what? I’ll become a member of a political party, and I’ll see if I can influence policy around this.” I’m thinking I’ll just tickle their fancy. So in February 2014, I joined the Liberal Party, because I’ve always voted Liberal. They were doing a drive to recruit women into politics, and they sent an email that said, “Invite Her to Run.” I was like, “Yeah, I know a woman.” It’s really like I tripped and fell in. I didn’t know how to run a campaign or anything about politics. I focused on what my strengths were, and then I started getting comfortable in my job once I figured out that I don’t need to know everything; I just need to be good at what I do know.

Q: You’ve been open about the subtle racism you’ve experienced on Parliament Hill, such as building staff always demanding to see your security pass while your white colleagues are allowed to sail through. Why did you feel compelled to speak up?

A: I want it to be clear that these stories were not necessarily about me. Stories are sticky only if you tell them. I put those stories out there for every person standing around the same water cooler. Some people talk about sports, some people talk about the show they watched last night and some people talk about real issues in their workplaces or communities that impact them on a daily basis. Issues like, “I can’t wear my hair poofy to work because it’s seen as unprofessional,” or, “Every time I come here in my traditional clothes, somebody says, ‘I didn’t know it was costume day today!’” Whether you blatantly tell someone, “That hairstyle is godawful!” or you do it more subtly but consistently, it hurts. We hold the hurt and hold it until somebody says, “Don’t steal my wallet,” and then your mind explodes.

When I was talking about mental health, nobody had an issue with that, but when I talk about race? “Oh jeez. Talk about hyperbole.”

Q: The story you shared about this particular incident last December — of a woman who came into the office bathroom while you were doing your makeup, placed her wallet on a ledge and told you not to steal it — generated a wave of responses on social media.

A: I put something on Facebook not because I was expecting it to go viral. I did it because if I’m experiencing this as a member of Parliament, what about the people who are afraid to say anything because they won’t get the promotion or because they don’t want to be seen as a mad Black woman? My sharing that story allows some people to say, “Yes, I understand that. This is the story I face on a daily basis.” It gives other people hearing the story the opportunity to then say, “How do we change this to make you feel more included?” Let’s have these conversations as human beings. Would you tolerate this treatment on a daily basis? The answer is no. Then let’s work to fix it. It’s really that simple.

Q: You’ve sparred on these issues with MP Maxime Bernier, who accused you on Twitter of thinking “the world revolves around your skin colour.” How has this public spat and the backlash to some of your comments affected your state of mind at work?

A: It’s made me very cautious. I need to live my life after politics, and I have three kids to get through school. Being branded as someone who only talks about racism? Scroll through my Twitter feed. When I was talking about mental health, nobody had an issue with that, but when I talk about race? “Oh jeez. Talk about hyperbole.” I feel like it’s possibly made me a less courageous member of Parliament. I have to walk around with a GPS tracker because people have made death threats. It’s all great to say whatever you want on Twitter behind some anonymous avatar, but I’m a public face and have to adjust my entire life to accommodate people who don’t like what I say.

Q: You recently stepped down from your role as parliamentary secretary to the minister of international development. Can you explain what motivated you?

A: This was a difficult decision, but I had to take my ego out of it. Basically, I started to feel like my ability to fulfil my roles as both parliamentary secretary and local MP was being compromised by the negative attention I was getting from trolls on social media. Every time I tweeted to support an event or a cause, I had trolls responding, “Oh, there she is, the racist!” and it just wasn’t fair to anyone. I have a responsibility to represent people. To care for people. To understand people. And at the end of it, that’s all I’m trying to do by speaking out. It’s not malicious intent. It’s not to indict institutions or to say that Canada is a bad place. How could I do that, as an immigrant who is here with a whole lot of privilege, sitting in this chair?

Q: What advice can you give to those of us with privilege on how to be better allies?

A: I think as a society, we first need to recognize the privileges we have. I check my privilege on a regular basis. I understand that I’m a member of Parliament, so I don’t even go into my own Black communities and purport to dictate what people should or shouldn’t do. I always talk about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. There are 94 calls to action, and we will never get to a point of reconciliation with Indigenous people if we’re not willing to listen to and accept the truth. The truth is the truth. We must come to grips with our past in this country and how it has dictated our current situation. It’s not about guilt or indicting anyone. It’s about understanding.

Q: You’re a Catholic who is also pro-choice. How has your faith played into your personal life and your political life?

A: I’ve stopped going to church, which has been one of the most difficult and heartbreaking decisions I’ve ever made. It’s because we’ve had protests at my church where they’ve named me specifically as not being able to receive communion, shown pictures of aborted fetuses, ridiculous things. I go to church for peace, so I assume that other people go to church for peace. I’m disrupting that, so I will leave. My faith has carried me to this point in my life, and the fact that I cannot go and plug into my faith is damaging me more than anything else. More than Twitter, more than Bernier. I just can’t do church right now. The priest at my church said we should come back, but the last few times I was there, I cried the whole time.

Q: Do you have any advice for women who want to enter politics to effect change in Canada?

A: I would say run. If we don’t do it, who is going to do it for us? Who is going to put in those progressive policies? We are the best people for the job. So I would say run because we have to. We have a generation of kids who need to see what resilience and standing up looks like. The time for sitting and waiting and hoping is over.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This story first appeared in The Observer’s November 2018 edition with the title ‘Stories are sticky only if you tell them.’

Glynis Ratcliffe is Broadview's senior writer.

Comments

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.