Interviewing former Member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes was something I didn’t really plan. Not saying I didn’t want to – I’m in awe of her tremendous strength and courage, but I didn’t think that I would post another interview for Words With Michelle, as I was spending all my time prepping to launch my podcast for Jan 2020.
But I remember sitting in front of my laptop at the end of the year, looking at my blog, and studying the illustrious list of people that I was fortunate to interview, and I felt that I owed it to myself and my audience to post at least one more interview.
I wanted to feature someone who made headlines, someone who is a risk taker, someone who is audaciously fearless.
I immediately thought of Celina Caesar-Chavannes, as I recalled her monumental speech on Parliament Hill in 2017 about hair and body shaming. I loved that she majestically rocked braids in a room full of people who didn’t look like her, just to make a point. She let the other members know that women who wear braids, wigs, weaves, afros, hijabs, etc., don’t need to conform to outdated and culturally insensitive norms – they can take up space wherever they want. Thank you, my sista!
However, in March 2019, Celina chose not to seek re-election, and some might say, walked away from a job of a lifetime. Yes, she was an influential black woman in Parliament who was able to tackle a number of issues and address inequality, but her role came with a hefty price.
I needed to know more about this courageous and very outspoken woman, and felt I had to speak to her directly. It took one DM, and Celina was on board.
I was a little nervous. For some reason I wasn’t sure how the interview would go. Would Celina be closed-mouth and not want to talk about certain issues? Would she shut down questions that went too deep? That was soooo not the case.
I like that Celina did not shy away from the tough questions that I posed – she spoke openly and honestly about experiencing micro-aggressions in the workplace, and spoke about why she felt it was her duty to call out hair and body shaming.
After the chat, I couldn’t contain myself and practically told anyone who’d listen to me, how fantastic Celina is.
To find out more about this heroic female, keep reading.
Birthplace: Pomme Rose, St. David’s, Grenada
Astrological Sign: Cancer
Political titles: Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minster of International Development, Member of the Canadian Parliament for Whitby
Fun fact: Celina was featured in Oprah’s magazine for her speech on hair
What prompted you to get into politics?
I had my business for 10 years from 2005 – 2015. I owned a healthcare-based research management firm, and I was working on clinical trials and national epidemiology studies related to neurological conditions like Alzheimer, Parkinson and Epilepsy. In 2013, I thought, “I’m getting kinda bored, I want to figure out what to do next. So I thought, “I want to take the company international, or leave the company and go work for a private firm.
I did my executive MBA, and while there I was enrolled in a politics course and they were talking about political equity and political capital – all the things that you can do within politics to change policy and really help people. And I thought, “I can do this!’
So in February of 2014, I became a member of a party for the first time in my life. I became a member of the Liberal party because I always voted Liberal.
On March 8th, 2014, I got an email that read, “Do you know a woman who would be interested in running in the next federal election? Invite her to run.” I was like, “Yeah…..me!” And the rest is history.
That’s a short span of time that it all happened.
A lot happens when there’s divine intervention and the universe is opening up and you’re ready to accept it.
I also had a year of yes. I read Shonda Rhimes’ book and I actually had a year of saying yes to things that popped in my head.
What was it like being a Member of Parliament as a woman of colour?
It was a “painfully beautiful” experience. It is the only way that I can describe it. It was painful because there are a lot of things that I witnessed and felt. I kept telling my husband that this job is killing me – I can actually feel it.
Then I realized for the first time – I’m the Black woman in here. I looked around……and I felt that. That was the painful part. The beautiful part was realizing the power that I had in the realization that I am this black woman. It’s not a burden, it’s love, it’s a responsibility to speak up and to talk about things to ensure that the next black woman who shows up in that space is not surprised by the structural violence that runs through the veins of the building.
I read that you endured microaggressions. How did you deal with it?
At first I thought I was being too sensitive about it. I had a person say that I needed to have thicker skin. But I have been twice as good, twice as fast, twice as everything in my life. I have twice as thick skin, too! So I thought, that’s not it.
I get tagged in pictures and I’m like, “I didn’t go to that event.” When I look at the picture, it’s a picture of Mitzie Hunter (MPP of Scarborough-Guilwood, who is also a woman of colour).
I said enough! The more I spoke about it [microaggressions], the more people appreciated it, but the more hate I received.
What sparked you to speak about hair in the House of Commons?
There was a moment that built up to that. Something happened where it all of a sudden dawned on me that people don’t understand what black women go through on a daily basis. It’s not just black women, it is our children. You hear stories of daycare workers who are pulling a young girl’s hair into an elastic band because she came to school with an afro, or a girl being removed from school because her hair is “too poufy” or it’s in braids. And after hearing this I thought that – people actually don’t get it. I thought most people probably don’t get it and that I should do something about it. I thought about how to do this speech in a way that’s impactful that could speak to young girls without them feeling ashamed.
I wanted them to see me and know that they deserve to be wherever they are in their natural state and don’t let anyone else tell them otherwise, because I’m here in Parliament doing it!
I like that you used your voice for the voiceless.
I don’t like using the term “voice for the voiceless” because when people think that they don’t have a voice, that’s when they stop using it. Even if it’s a whisper, I encourage women to keep talking, document things that are happening to them, tell other people, find allies because that way we make things change. And for me, it was a responsibility that came with the job. I represented 130,000 people in Whitby, but I represented a much bigger community based on who I am and the experience I bring. So I didn’t have a choice – I’m going to use this platform to shake things up.
Why did you decide not to run in the last election?
We are often told to stay when you’re the only one there and you have a seat at the table. You need to be there. But I also think that leaving is one of the most powerful things we can do. I wasn’t going to let anyone make that decision for me. I wasn’t going to put my fate in anybody else’s hand. When I knew what was being served at the table wasn’t something that I wanted to eat, I knew it was time for me to leave.
I think it is important for young women to know that’s okay. When you feel in your gut it’s time to go – roll out! Give yourself permission to leave. And that is okay whether it’s a job, a relationship or anything you’re investing your time and energy and you’re not getting a positive return on your investment, it’s time to go! I know my worth. I know how much I’m worth to the party and the political system.
How did it feel being named one of Chatelaine Magazine’s Women of the Year?
I saw this article about Chatelaine and I was tagged and I was like, “Why would I be tagged in this Women of the Year thing?” So I clicked on it and I was still like, “why is my name here?” I had to click onto the article and scroll through and I just started crying.
For someone to say that even in the last year that has been tremendously difficult, that I see you, to recognize that and to put me on a list with some pretty amazing women – that was incredible. I think it’s a testament to living authentically – and that’s powerful for me.
What’s next for you?
I’m starting my PhD in Organizational Leadership. I’m tired of complaining about not seeing women of colour in CEO positions, and I want to address that issue.
I’m also starting workshops on my top 10 rules for maximizing yourself that I curated over my 10 years of business. The lessons that I share are my stories – not all are good, I made a lot of mistakes. All of the highs and the lows created this very powerful woman.
I enjoyed this interview so much. One of the takeaways I got from it is that Celina lives life without regrets. She is authentic, she’s a fighter, and she doesn’t back down because things get tough. Thanks a million for talking with me, Celina.
To learn more about Celina, please click onto the following links: