Celina Caesar-Chavannes on power, politics and Black womanhood in Canada

In Modernity/Tradition by Deborah Mebude

Portrait by Teju Abiola (IG: @tejuabiolaart)

Celina Caesar-Chavannes is a former elected official with a master plan to destigmatize mental health & create a more equitable and inclusive world. Celina is a PhD Student and Entrepreneur. She graduated from New College at the University of Toronto, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, followed by an MBA in healthcare management from the University of Phoenix, and an executive MBA. Caesar-Chavannes worked as an international research consultant, as well as a lecturer on the need to include marginalized populations in clinical research. We chat with her about power, politics and Black womanhood in Canada.

What do you love most about being a (boss ass) Black woman?

I love everything about being a Black woman. That sounds sort of cliche, but if you asked me about this year’s ago, I’d give you a nuanced answer. Now it’s everything. When I really think about it, it really is our superpower. Being a Black woman in a space that was never designed for us. We’re not usually there. We’re excluded from conversations in certain spaces.

I view it as a strength and as a power. If we really harnessed it we could change the world. It’s so ‘Wakanda forever,’ but it’s true.

Tell me about your experience with politics as it related to power? How would you define power? (Historical power, institutional power, personal power)?

Now that I’ve thought about my position as a Black woman, I can see the power I had. However, at the beginning of the process, it was really daunting.

Being the only Black woman out of 338 really played on my conscious. I’ve worked in white spaces before, it’s not that I wasn’t accustomed to it. But it felt different. There was a heaviness, a weight to it.

My uncle pointed out to me on the day I was swearing-in, that the audacity of this little Black girl of Grenada to be sworn into the 42nd Parliament is insane. When I thought about it in those initial moments, I thought, ‘Who the hell do I think I am?’

The structural violence that exists in parliament, I felt it walking through the hallways. It was heavy. I’d come home and say to my husband, ‘This is killing me. Something about this is actually killing me.’

I couldn’t explain it, I didn’t know what it was. I’m not Kimberlé Crenshaw. I’m not immediately going to critical race theory. Every time something happened I thought I was going nuts.

When I went into politics I noticed that I’m a Black person and I’m a woman. Of course I knew I was before, but I really felt the impacts of being a Black woman.

I think about the first time you popped up on my timeline, and really grabbed my intention. It was when you talked about black girls and braids. It was a conversation about hair, body shaming, and exclusion of girls and women from institutions. You spoke the way I would speak to my friends in private, but maybe not in public, because my slang would have been considered improper. You affirmed our right to exist in our most true and authentic self. It was so important, it went viral, you were applauded.

In September 2017 I did the thing with the braids. There wasn’t an intentionality about any of it going viral. I didn’t think it would catch attention, or would calling out Maxime Bernier for that matter. I didn’t think any of it would turn into a big thing.

I just wanted to be that person in politics who engaged with the Celina who wouldn’t engage in politics. I wanted to talk about the things I wanted to hear about. The power belongs to the people. If we can’t engage people we’re not doing our job.

I figured that they can’t fire me. I had to decide who I wanted to be in that moment. Not being myself was killing me.

So I decided I’m gonna say dope because I think my braids are dope. I said a lot of stuff throughout my time like that. I wanted there to be a record of authenticity.

I never wore a suit. I didn’t feel the need to conform. If I wanted to wear an African dress I would. If I wanted to wear a t-shirt and jeans I would. My t-shirts would have a political statement on them.

There’s no dress code for women, we weren’t even thought of when they created the dress codes. I was doing things that traditionally I shouldn’t be doing.

Did you ever have doubts about that speech, what choices did you make in your head about what it would mean, why you would give it, and who you chose to prioritize and why?

The speech I originally wrote was specifically written for Black women. I wanted to speak in a way that Black women would know I was speaking to them. I changed the style of the speech to make sure it was inclusive but also spoke to Black women and girls at a critical point.

For many of our leaders, we see a fully polished version of themselves. We don’t see the moments of anxiety, of doubt, how did you become you, how did you prepare for politics and how did you build your personal power? Was it natural?

I grew into it. The person that started in politics is not the person I became. It took a lot of growing into.

I’m editing my book right now and I put in there a particular scene when I fell onto my knees and was crying about something. Part of my strength is that I cry. Whenever I feel emotional I let it out. Acknowledging how I’m feeling is a way that allows me to harness my power.

How can Black youth, especially young women, find the courage to speak truth to power?

It’s difficult, but being a confident disruptor is not a competition. We need to be strategic. For me, I knew that for four years they couldn’t fire me. I could either leverage this for good or be a wallflower.

Be as authentic as you can possibly be in a space where you’re safe and comfortable. Microaggressions wear on you. Be safe, but also realize you can leverage the power of community. You don’t have to do it on your own.

You might think ‘This company has these racist policies, if I bring it up these will be the repercussions.’ Use the village to get your point across and keep yourself safe.

When I would meet young girls on [Parliament] Hill, I would secretly pass them my number. On Sunday nights we would speak. We would decide how to talk about issues. If they felt comfortable addressing it, they would know I had their back. Understand that keeping that village alive is critical.

You became a parliamentarian through the Liberal Party of Canada. Why did you decide to opt-in, and why did you decide to opt-out?

Opting out was a really really hard decision. I didn’t think people would understand that it wasn’t necessarily something I did for myself. I wanted my daughters to know that they don’t have to settle. They don’t have to continue in a situation where they’re not being valued. Where they’re being disrespected.

People have told me that I quit. I didn’t quit anything. My decision to opt-out is based on a song by Nina Simone that says, If you’re at a table and love is no longer being served, you need to leave.

It’s hard not to tear up, even now as I speak about it. It’s heartbreaking because I loved that job. As much as you love it, you gotta know⁠—whether its politics or a bad relationship⁠—‘when love’s no longer being served,’ it’s time to go.

When you opted-out, although you lost institutional power, I think you gained a lot of personal power, but our community also lost an exceptional parliamentarian. We lost MP Celina, but I think we also gained Celina-Ceasar-Chavannes. And maybe that’s who we needed all along. In your personal life, where do you feel the most powerful, and how should we cultivate that strength as Black women?

Being untethered makes me more powerful now. There were times I would tweet something and then say to my husband ‘3, 2, 1’ and I’d get a call from a 6-1-3 number and they would tell me I’d have to remove it.

Being hooked in with a party was not helping me, not only that, when I was given a speech and I’d move things around I found it very difficult to stick to a script. The more I did that stuff the more they made it hard for me to be there.

The power that you have to create change does not come with a title. We have this reverence for politicians—like they’re a Messiah—but the power has always been with the people. We don’t need the title to have that power. The power is always there. We have the power.

What do I love about being a Black woman? We are the superpowers of the world. All we need to do now is figure out that we have that power and stay connected to the village and leave our ego somewhere. Once you go around chasing power, you’ve lost. My ability to influence power has never changed.

Where would you like to see Black activists focus their attention/efforts? What causes/calls to action are most important/urgent?

Right now I think some of the major issues are around our education system. They are George Floyd-ing our kids. They are suspending them. They’re streaming them.

For me, it’s the racism that exists in our education system. My son, for example, is a gifted student. In grade two he started acting out. We as parents had the means and were acutely aware that he was smart. We paid hundreds of dollars to get him tested. The psychologist said your kid is off the charts genius but his teachers would tell him he couldn’t do advanced learning. ‘Why are you discouraging him?’

My husband’s in the educational system. We have the means, but what about the parents that don’t have the means?

Yes defund the police, yes have these conversations, but let’s not forget about the worst health outcomes for Black women, let’s not forget our kids are being streamlined, let’s not forget that systemic racism is in every single one of our institutions.

A great book you’ve read recently?

One of the most impressive books I’ve read is Spark Kristine Barnett. It’s about a mom whose son has autism, who’s told her son will never speak. She felt in her gut that what they were saying was wrong. She pulls him out of the program and lets him stare up at space. One day he says “I love you, momma”. She realized that in those times that people thought he was staring at nothing, he was actually analyzing the frequency of the light vibrations.

Reading other people’s stories is so important. They allow you to see things in a different way, beyond how the powers that be tell you how it should work. I read it maybe 5-6 years ago, but I’ve taken 9 that story with me in everything.

When you’re in spaces that are traditionally not made for you, this is how to live your life.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I’m really inspired by the collective activism of our young people. My daughters are my heroes. The strength to do any and everything, to be unapologetic, to travel the world. I see young Black women doing dope stuff. I’m really inspired by our young people.

Thanks for what you’re doing. Thanks for using your representation in a way that matters. We are powerful people.