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Stepping back to look ahead: why this outspoken parliamentary secretary volunteered to be demoted

By Charelle Evelyn      

The normal trajectory for MPs is to want to work their way up to PS, then minister. But Celina Caesar-Chavannes says a barrage of social media abuse was one reason she decided to leave the plum role.

‘I’ve been obsessing about what people think throughout this whole journey and now it’s about a decision that is smart and strategic, and this is what I need to do,' says Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes of her decision to turn down an offer to be parliamentary secretary. The Hill Times file photograph
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When Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes turned down the offer to serve another term as a parliamentary secretary, it wasn’t a decision made lightly, she says, nor was it solely based on the social media abuse to which she’s been subjected for being a woman, particularly a woman of colour, who speaks her mind.

First elected in 2015 to represent Whitby, Ont., Ms. Caesar-Chavannes was quickly plucked to serve as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s right hand as his parliamentary secretary for a year, before going on to spend nearly two years as the parliamentary secretary to the international development minister.

But when she said the call came in on Aug. 27 from the Prime Minister’s Office letting her know that they wanted her to carry on, she said she “respectfully declined.”

“I took this job with a certain amount of responsibility and my responsibility sometimes is to say ‘No, I’m not going to do it anymore,’ because it’s now impacting so many different individuals or organizations that I care about,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes told The Hill Times in a phone interview last week.

Following the Aug. 31 release of a new list of 37 parliamentary secretaries, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes posted a short video on Twitter explaining her absence, and congratulating her successor, seatmate Kamal Khera (Brampton West, Ont.).

“Over the last few months, it has been very difficult for me and my family with a number of situations that have happened,” she said in the video. “It was my decision personally to decide not to continue with the parliamentary secretary position.”

When asked to confirm she was offered another PS job last month, a PMO spokesperson linked to the MP’s Twitter video explanation.

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes told The Hill Times her decision had been brewing for some time, and was made more difficult because working in the international development portfolio was something she said she “thoroughly enjoyed.”

The role provided an “opportunity to tell one of Canada’s greatest stories around the world, to meet with people doing extraordinary things around the world with our Canadian brand,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said. “And unfortunately, over the last few months, the small NGOs that I meet with and want to interact with and want to help build their brand, got caught up in my ‘she’s a racist’ rhetoric.”

While she said the heat from recent social media interactions was not the only factor in coming to the decision to step back, it did play a role. She said she wasn’t going to get into detail about all the reasons, but that she “made the smartest, most strategic decision for me and my family at this time.”

On March 26, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes tweeted that she was “so tired of being attacked as a racist” because she questions or speaks up against racism. “I will not sit [and] let others say what they wish, because they feel they can get away with it, or others are too cowardice to object.”

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, one of only a handful of Black MPs, has been outspoken on the racism she says she’s experienced as an elected official.

After commenting on remarks made by The Globe and Mail’s Robert Fife questioning the need for the Liberal government to conduct consultations on systemic racism because “kids of all ethnic backgrounds [are] hanging out with each other,” she caused a social media stir, fed by independent commentary by broadcaster Brian Lilley as well as Ezra Levant at the conservative online political commentary media website Rebel Media. A headline on a story by Mr. Levant suggested she might be the country’s “most racist MP.”

This followed a previous Twitter exchange between the MP and then-Conservative MP Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.) who, also questioning the consultations, accused the Liberals of being divisive instead of aiming for a “colour-blind society.” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes told him to “check [his] privilege and be quiet,” for which she later apologized.

“People forgot the point. They got stuck on the ‘check your privilege and be quiet’ and forgot the point of why I made the comment,” she said last week. “And the point of why I made the comment was because another Member of Parliament decided that the investment we were making in a community that is often marginalized was divisive. That was the point. And nobody called him on that point. That was the point.”

That inability to stay on point was bleeding over into the international development-related interactions she was having, she said.

“Do I let my ego impede some of the work that these great organizations are doing? Whether or not it does is irrelevant, but there’s the perception of perhaps it may because I quote-retweet them and all of a sudden people are throwing all of this shade at them.”

And while scores of people showed their support online with the hashtag #HereforCelina (which she said “saved me”), including her own daughter, the constant need to analyze and second-guess oneself “gets exhausting.”

“It’s why really good people often leave organizations.”

But, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she’s done worrying about the optics, despite knowing that when a woman makes a decision to step away from a plum role, it’s viewed through an emotional lens.

“Do people think that she can’t hack it? Do people think that it’s her mental health? Do they think she isn’t strong enough? She doesn’t have thick-enough skin? And at some point you have to say ‘Forget it,’” she said. “I don’t care what other people think. I’ve been obsessing about what people think throughout this whole journey and now it’s about a decision that is smart and strategic and this is what I need to do.”

A September 2017 member’s statement that went viral landed Celina Caesar-Chavannes in a spring issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Photograph courtesy of Twitter

PS title unnecessary to shape attitudes, culture: Caesar-Chavannes

Two of Ms. Caesar-Chavannes’ colleagues also said they removed their names for consideration for parliamentary secretary positions.

Kim Rudd (Northumberland-Peterborough South, Ont.) was parliamentary secretary to the natural resources minister, and said she was stepping back to focus on her constituency, while Don Rusnak (Thunder Bay-Rainy River, Ont.) said he wouldn’t be continuing in his role as parliamentary secretary to the Indigenous services minister to spend more time with his young family.

While she said she doesn’t share those reasons, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she’s “very mindful of all of the circumstances around this title, all of the responsibility around this title.”

But she says she also doesn’t need the title to do the work she wants to do. Citing Barack Obama’s recent appearance on David Letterman’s Netflix show My Next Guest Needs No Introduction, said she was struck by a comment by the former U.S. president suggesting that the ability to lead isn’t only in crafting legislation, but also shaping attitudes and culture and increasing awareness.

In September 2017, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes gained international attention for a member’s statement she gave in the House that called out body shaming, particularly that of Black women’s hair.

“I was reminded by the prime minister the other day the only other person who’s had a profile in O, The Oprah Magazine was him, in this government,” she said. “The speech that I made that got me profiled in there had nothing to do with my parliamentary secretary role.”

The way the past few months have played out will have an effect on whether Ms. Caesar-Chavannes runs for re-election next year, she said, noting she has yet to make that final call.

She said a decision won’t be made until she has wrapped up meeting her eligibility requirements (Liberal incumbents have until Oct. 1 to meet fundraising goals), of which she said she’s nearly complete. The real test will stem from conversations with constituents, she said.

“It requires me to talk to people and say: ‘How much of what happened in the last few months has impacted your thinking about my ability to be a voice for you?’”

She added: “I’ve already put it out there that I know there is a possibility that I could be a one-term MP based on the stuff that I say, and that’s okay, but I’m going to do right by the people of Whitby and ask them the question and make sure that yes, they do want me to represent them.”

cevelyn@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that Celina Caesar-Chavannes was initially the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, not for youth. Peter Schiefke has been the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary for his portfolio as the youth minister since December 2015.

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