Still I Rise: Celina Caesar-Chavannes talks her career, critics and commitment to advocacy
It’s been a rough couple of months for MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes.
In March, the Whitby, Ont. MP found herself in the middle of a social media firestorm after telling Conservative MP Maxime Bernier in a heated Twitter exchange to “check his privilege and be quiet.” Her comment was in response to Bernier’s criticism of budget funding allocated towards initiatives targeting racialized Canadians, in which he suggested that the ultimate goal of fighting racial discrimination was to create a “color-blind” society.
The online backlash against Caesar-Chavannes was swift. Many criticized her for trying to silence another politician and “playing the race card,” while others accused her of racism. Weeks later, Caesar-Chavannes called out Robert Fife—also on Twitter—after the Globe and Mail Ottawa bureau chief suggested that because young people of all backgrounds are “hanging around with each other,” systemic racism in Canada doesn’t exist.
To suggest that systemic racism does not exist, makes me question your ability to investigate stories of the Canadian experience without bias. https://t.co/obuSGY36aL
— Celina C-C (@MPCelina) March 26, 2018
The backlash—particularly within the Conservative media—was unrelenting. Ezra Levant blasted her, writing in The Rebel that Caesar-Chavannes might be “Canada’s most racist MP.” In an article published to his personal website, reporter Brian Lilley accused her of “seeing a racist behind every tree and rock.”
The overwhelmingly adverse response took an emotional toll, leaving Caesar-Chavannes feeling frustrated, offended and mentally and emotionally drained.
“In one instant I call out two people on their BS and all of a sudden I’m the most racist,” said Caesar-Chavannes. “One guy doesn’t see colour, the other guy thinks systemic racism doesn’t exist and I’m the one who’s vilified.
“The anxiety around this has been horrible.”
Despite her vocal critics, Caesar-Chavannes isn’t backing down. The unapologetic MP (who is also parliamentary secretary to the minister of International Development et la Francophonie) has been calling out racist and discriminatory behaviour since her arrival on the Canadian political scene—and long before that, too.
As a high school student, during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, she organized a small protest against racial injustice of her own on the school grounds. In the decade leading up to her appointment to MP in 2015, Caesar-Chavannes, then an entrepreneur with her own research consulting firm, was a staunch advocate for the inclusion of marginalized groups in clinical research. An active member of her community, she served on the Governing Council of the University of Toronto, was a member of the Institutional Advisory Board of the Institute of Neurosciences, Mental Health and Addiction, part of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and remains a member of the Congress of Black Women.
“I’ve spent my whole life trying to build my reputation,” she says, referring to her personal brand Celina Incorporated. “It’s the thing that I hold dear.”
It’s this very authenticity that’s made the name “Celina Caesar-Chavannes” so well known across the country. Brutally honest, incredibly transparent and continually outspoken, she uses every platform available to call it as she sees it, advocating for those who cannot do so themselves. In 2016, she shared a firsthand account of her ongoing battle with depression with Huffington Post, a bold move for any active politician to make. A year later, she gave what remains the most prominent speech of her political career thus far in the House of Commons, speaking out against body shaming and hair discrimination. The video quickly went viral, even landing a spot in Oprah’s O Magazine.
In just three short years, Caesar-Chavannes has managed to transcend the borders of Canadian politics. When asked about how she deals with the newfound attention, both positive and negative, she shrugs it off.
“I can’t for a moment get complacent or settled or OK with the fact that these things happen, because there’s so much work to do,” she says simply.
She might be new on the political scene but in more ways than one, Caesar-Chavannes is igniting what many believe to be a long overdue national conversation about systemic racism and discrimination in Canada. While she’s been met with considerable flack for it, she’s also received an overwhelming amount of support from coast to coast. Most recently, in response to the online backlash she received after her Twitter spat with MP Bernier, her supporters rallied together under the hashtag #HereForCelina, sending the embattled Liberal MP messages of positivity and encouragement.
The support was exactly what she desperately needed.
“I think, for me, #HereForCelina was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever witnessed in my entire life,” she says, explaining that the online reprimand she’d faced had left her struggling to cope mentally. “Just when I thought, ‘That’s it, I can’t do this anymore,’ #HereForCelina happened and it gave me a little bit of life.”
But although comforting and needed, the rally of support has also left Caesar-Chavannes feeling like she needs to do more.
“The responsibility [to combat racism] is even more now because I feel like I need to do something about it,” she explains. “And I don’t know what that is.”
Of the 338 politicians in the House of Commons, Caesar-Chavannes is the only dark-skinned black woman. Her unique experiences as such have given way to what she sees as a responsibility to speak out against and denounce the micro aggressions, discrimination and racism she regularly encounters.
“I want to make the space a little bit more inviting for women who look like me and women who don’t,” she says. “That’s what I want my legacy to be: someone that broke barriers, transcended, changed culture and made the space better. That’s what I think is important.”
While her next move isn’t entirely clear, her supporters—and critics—should expect it to be authentically Celina. Though the highs and lows of her tenure so far have shown her just how “venomous” and “ugly” politics can sometimes be, she says she has no regrets about how the past couple of months have played out. When asked about whether she’s worried they might hurt her chances for re-election next year, she answers without hesitation.
“If this is the only four years that I have, I’m going to rattle the cage and make as much noise as possible.”
On Sunday, Caesar-Chavannes and Bernier were back at it on Twitter, albeit in a much less terse exchange. Following a recent profile of the Liberal MP in the Globe and Mail last week, MP Bernier accused Caesar-Chavannes of not focusing on policy and “thinking the world revolves around skin colour.” Never one to shy away from calling it as she sees it, Caesar-Chavannes was quick to respond.
“I deal with policy every day,” she tweeted in response. “Debating in @OurCommons, asking questions & poking holes in the CONs weak positions. Unlike you however, I can focus on policy while also shifting the status quo and increasing awareness. That’s what happens when you
#AddWomen. We get more done!”
It sounds just like a rattling cage.
But that’s just According to Adrienne.