It was the aftermath of a public row with former Conservative politician Maxime Bernier that crystallized a feeling for Celina Caesar-Chavannes that she didn’t belong on Parliament Hill.
“I quote Nina Simone: ‘You’ve got to learn to leave the table/ When love’s no longer being served.’ There was no love,” said Caesar-Chavannes, a former Liberal member of Parliament (MP) representing Whitby, Ontario, and a former parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. “They don’t want me there.”
In March 2018, Bernier—then an MP for Beauce, Quebec—criticized government funding for programs for racialized Canadians, tweeting that the goal should be to live in “a colour-blind society.” In response, Caesar-Chavannes tweeted that using colour blindness as a defence contributes to racism.
“Please check your privilege and be quiet,” Caesar-Chavannes said—a comment that sparked a massive backlash on Twitter and resulted in Bernier accusing her of being anti-free speech and right-wing commentators calling her racist.
But she said she didn’t hear from most of her Liberal colleagues or the prime minister until a #hereforCelina hashtag campaign started weeks later, in response to a column that accused her of “seeing racism everywhere.” When she later confronted Trudeau about the lack of support, she said he told her, “As a strong Black woman, I didn’t think you needed help.” She said Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner was more supportive to her during that period than Trudeau.
The incident is one of many allegations of racism, tokenizing, and microaggressions Caesar-Chavannes wrote about in her new memoir Can You Hear Me Now?, which came out February 2.
In an email statement, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office said Trudeau “has deep respect” for Caesar-Chavannes.
“She is a strong advocate for Black Canadians, and continues to fight the stigma around mental health,” the statement said.
“As the Prime Minister said in the past, he is committed to fostering an environment where Ministers, caucus, and staff feel comfortable approaching him when they have concerns or disagreements. The Prime Minister has many conversations with Members of Parliament. Those conversations are private.”
Caesar-Chavannes told VICE World News her experiences of being tokenized, excluded, and undervalued led her to resign from the Liberal caucus and not run again in the 2019 election. Her decision culminated in an explosive conversation with Trudeau in February 2019, during which she alleges he complained to her about being confronted about his privilege. She said he was angry that she wanted to resign on the same day then Minister of Veterans Affairs Jody Wilson-Raybould quit her cabinet role, in the midst of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, the biggest crisis the governing Liberals had faced since Trudeau’s election in 2015.
“I was met with an earful that I needed to appreciate him, that everybody talked to him about his privilege, that he’s so tired of everybody talking to him about this stuff, and that I cannot make this announcement right now,” she said. She alleges he told her “he couldn’t have two powerful women of colour leave at the same time.”
After listening to his “rant” for a while, Caesar-Chavannes said she cussed out the prime minister.
“I had to ask him, ‘Motherfucker, who the fuck do you think you’re talking to?’” she said. “I was so angry.”
She said she didn’t make out what Trudeau said after that, but it “sounded like he was crying.” She ended up delaying her resignation announcement until March 2019.
Caesar-Chavannes said the Liberal party’s treatment of Wilson-Raybould—an Indigenous woman and whistleblower—made her feel like many of her colleagues were “fake as fuck” and cemented her desire to sit as an independent.
“How do you believe her when it’s convenient and leave her when it’s not?” she said.
But she said there were problems from the get-go.
While Trudeau said his 2015 cabinet, which achieved gender parity, “looks like Canada,” Caesar-Chavannes noted that none of the positions were occupied by a Black person.
When she was asked to be parliamentary secretary to Trudeau and later, the international development minister, she said she told the prime minister she did not want to be tokenized. (Parliamentary secretaries can fill in for ministers when they’re unavailable and help them carry out their duties.) Caesar-Chavannes, who has two MBAs and a background in entrepreneurship, said she laid out a framework for issues she could push, including working with communities to make sure the government wasn’t engaging in performative allyship and creating a national brain strategy to address diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Instead, she said she got sent to a White House trip where she wasn’t invited to the state dinner, the African American Museum in Washington, D.C., and the inauguration of Ghanaian president Nana Akufo-Addo.
“I never had to use my brain at all,” she said. ‘It was tokenistic. It was embarrassing.”
She said she was surprised to see the government announce $50 million in funding for Black Canadians in the 2018 budget rollout. She was disappointed by the low sum, but said she was told by some of her colleagues to get on board.
“I was never consulted,” she said. “Never once invited to a meeting with a feminist, ‘diversity is our strength’ government, as the only Black female representative in Parliament.”
Caesar-Chavannes also spoke about other microaggressions she faced. She said from 2015 until she left in 2019, she was consistently asked for her credentials by security on Parliament Hill. One time, in the bathroom of her office building, she said a white woman came in, put her wallet on the counter, and jokingly instructed Caesar-Chavannes not to steal it.
“It was almost like a weekly occurrence. There was never a sense of a belonging,” she said.
There were times when she felt labelled with the trope of the angry Black woman, she said. But eventually, she decided she couldn’t focus on that and was going to continue to call things out.
By September 2019, when it was revealed that Trudeau had repeatedly worn blackface two decades prior, including when he was a teacher at a private school, Caesar-Chavannes was an independent MP. But she said she still wrote to the Prime Minister’s Office, advising on how he could be accountable. She said she recommended Trudeau explain the history of minstrel shows and how dehumanizing they were to Black people, in addition to apologizing and specifying what steps he would take to do better.
“They took those emails and didn’t do shit all with them,” she said. “This is the leader of a G7 country. If we’re not going to push that person to be better, to do what is right, then what does that say about our democracy?”
She noted the majority white press gallery was ill-equipped to cover the scandal. (In March 2018, she called out Globe and Mail journalist Robert Fife for suggesting systemic racism isn’t an issue in Canada.)
“They’re afraid to say the word ‘Black.’ You want people who are afraid to say the word ‘Black’ to call him, the prime minister, out on blackface?”
She also said Trudeau missed an opportunity as the leader of a majority government to take concrete actions to combat systemic racism, such as repealing mandatory minimum prison sentences, which disproportionately impact Black and Indigenous Canadians.
Asked how she feels about Trudeau personally, Caesar-Chavannes said she could have a beer with him, but would “never follow him as a leader.”
“I’m pretty sure he’s a nice guy. We could drink a beer, we could talk about… mundane superficial stuff, nothing too deep,” she said. “I’m an activist. I don't want to talk about bullshit. I'm not going to go deep with you when you just woke up.”
Rempel Garner told VICE World News Caesar-Chavannes is a “rockstar” who “put up with a lot of bullshit” in Parliament.
She said while politicians are often quick to condemn systemic racism and sexism, they often fail to call out issues within their own parties.
Caesar-Chavannes “really put sunlight on these issues in a very powerful and impactful way. What troubles me is, what’s changed?” she said.
Currently, Caesar-Chavannes is an equity and inclusion advocate and leadership consultant and a senior adviser to Queen’s University.
She said she feels good these days, but misses politics. She feels she had to leave a job she loved.
“Do I still give them heck? Yes. Am I still active on social media? Yes. Am I still riding for my community? Yes. Do I have the restrictions of partisan politics in anything I do now? No. I’m free and unencumbered.”
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