In 2019, member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes left the Liberal party to represent her riding of Whitby, Ontario, as an independent. In her leadership memoir Can You Hear Me Now?: How I Found My Voice and Learned to Live with Passion and Purpose (Random House Canada), the cover of which Q&Q is revealing here for the first time, Caesar-Chavannes reflects on her life as a Black woman in Canada, and how she learned to use her voice. An excerpt of her upcoming book, which will be published Feb. 2, follows.
Every time I wake up on my own, and not to the annoying sound of my alarm, I am amazed. I am not a morning person. Pre-noon daylight has an irritating hue I cannot stand, especially during the winter, when the sun shines sharpest and brightest on the coldest days.
On the morning of Wednesday, March 20, 2019, I opened my eyes to that aggravating light shining through the window of my twenty-sixth-floor condo in Ottawa, and wondered if I’d slept through the alarm. I could have checked the time on my phone, but that required energy I did not have. I blinked, and tiny black particles of day-old mascara fell into my eyes. I rubbed them, which only made the situation worse. I sighed. Here I was, conscious before I had to be, dealing with 24-hour mascara dust and the same incredible headache I’d gone to bed with the night before.
The headache was from the stress generated the previous day over revealing my new-found freedom from the Canadian political party system. The day—the first in my career as an Independent member of Parliament and not as a part of the Liberal caucus—had been long and hard. I felt like an empty tube of toothpaste someone had tried to squeeze one last time.
And then my cell phone began to buzz, message after message reminding me of the previous day’s events and promising a difficult time ahead. I ignored them, rolled out of bed and went over to look out the window. The neighbouring rooftops had no signs of snow and neither did the streets. That was a good thing: any hint of white on the rooftops or the roadways completely threw off my shoe game, forcing me to wear an oversized pair of Sorels I’d inherited from my eldest daughter, who no longer wanted to be seen in them. Today, I could wear a pair of heeled boots. My moment of fashion satisfaction was interrupted by more buzzing from the phone. For heaven’s sake! It didn’t stop. Remember the days when in order to communicate with someone, you had to find a piece of paper, locate a pen or pencil, write the letter, find an envelope, figure out the address, paste on a stamp and walk to the mailbox? I longed for those days.
But there was no getting away from it: everyone I knew—and lots of people I didn’t—had strong opinions about my decision to leave the Liberals after several tense weeks of confrontation with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. And with social media and my public presence as an MP, all of them knew how to reach me to express those opinions directly. What they didn’t know was that it wasn’t just my issues with the prime minister that had brought me to this point.
I’d been swept out of my quiet life—running a business and raising my family in Whitby, Ontario—by the tornado of an election, and dropped in Ottawa. An Oz, for sure, but in shades of grey. Unlike many of my colleagues, I had never dreamed about being a politician, had never even taken a political science course or been interested in more than the headlines, and had never done the school trip to our nation’s capital. The first time I entered the House of Commons was when I started my job as a member of Parliament. I thought business and research were my things, and that philanthropy was the way I’d give back to society. I had zero political aspirations.
But then Jim Flaherty, the finance minister in Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, died suddenly on April 10, 2014, just after he had stepped down to spend more time with his family. A by-election was called in his riding, which was my riding. I found myself running (more on how that came about later). I lost that contest to the former mayor of Whitby: not surprising given that the mayor had name recognition in the community and I did not; that I was a Black woman running in a constituency that was 70 percent white and had never voted in a Black candidate; and that hardly anyone could remember the last time Whitby had voted Liberal.
But I didn’t lose by much, and I really don’t like to lose—a powerful motivator. When the next general election came around, in 2015, I ran again. This time I found even more support on the doorsteps of my riding. People—and not only Liberals—were looking for a fresh perspective on politics and found it in me: not only a Black woman from an immigrant background who had built her own company from scratch and had the business acumen Conservative voters believed they could trust, but also a person who embodied the values of diversity and inclusion that the times demanded, and that Trudeau’s Liberal Party was featuring in its campaign.
This time I won. A fairy tale, right?
So why walk away from the party only four years after that victory to sit as an Independent? That was what all the people buzzing my phone wanted to know: my constituents, who liked the way I’d been representing the riding, and were disappointed that I wasn’t a Liberal anymore; Black leaders, who thought now that I had a seat at the table I should learn how to compromise in order to keep it, and that I was letting the community down by not playing the game; other politicians who didn’t want to lose an ally; and party functionaries who wanted to berate me for what they saw as me piling on against a leader who was already in hot water over the SNC-Lavalin affair and the way he had treated two female ministers who stood up to him. The feminist PM with a female problem.
I had my own point to make and different battles to fight. Something unexpected had happened to me in Ottawa. I would say that I had arrived on Parliament Hill ready to play for the Liberal team. I had encountered many cynical voters who predicted that as soon as I faced my first challenge as an MP, I would become just another politician. I promised them that I would not. I’d spoken with others who believed in me, but who thought that the old elite ways were so entrenched I had no hope of changing anything. I’d also met voters who wanted me to live up to our campaign promise that we would do politics differently, who hoped I would remain the authentic Celina they’d voted for, who wanted me to challenge the old ways in which our country was run. I promised them that I would strive to bend the status quo, that I would bring change. There were a lot of promises to keep, and I’d intended to keep every one.
During my first months as a politician I was so fresh to it all it was like I was up at 30,000 feet staring down at the whole strange landscape, at the same time as I was struggling to take a few steps on the ground towards the aims I felt I was elected to achieve. It seemed to me that most of the people here were not interested in doing politics differently; they just said they were. Was I naïve? Perhaps. But I could also see what wasn’t working in Ottawa even on the human resources level: we MPs were like a bunch of CEOs suddenly being ordered around by junior staffers empowered by the PMO and the ministers’ offices to manage us. In effect, that layer of staff—Keith Beardsley, an advisor to Stephen Harper, had nicknamed them the “boys in short pants” (though some of them were women)—were bossing around members of Parliament and making profound decisions about policy that affected our country with no regard to what MPs could actually contribute. Some prime ministers are brilliant caucus leaders, building consensus on the issues where they want to make change; others lead by fear. Our leader always said that he wanted to engage with all caucus members, but even in the last year of his first term, there were some that had never met with him. In my opinion he was hiding behind the impenetrable shield of his principal secretaries, each of them smart people, but none of them responsible to a constituency themselves. To some degree, he was engaging more with international media than he was with his own caucus on critical issues.
But this isn’t about the failings of one prime minister. This is about how going into politics made me understand the true meaning of the phrase “we have to do politics differently.” Before I got to Ottawa I was well aware of the colour of my skin, and my gender, and the obstacles both raised, but I treated it all like a set of problems I could solve by basically outsmarting or outplaying those around me. Mostly I’d found that I could cut my cloth to whatever the circumstances required; witness my success in business and the fact that I was elected in the first place.
But I’d been running so hard for my whole life, I’d never taken time to truly reflect on what I was put on earth for. I was a wife, a mother of three, a successful business owner, but the first time I had ever lived alone, with time to think, was after I moved to Ottawa. This twenty-sixth-floor condo was the first place where I could close the door and be beholden only to myself. And what that led to, combined with what I was encountering in my work as an MP—having taken on responsibility for changing our public life so that it would apply to and represent everyone—was an awakening that was as powerful as it was painful.
It’s not just politics we have to do differently, I realized. We have to do everything differently. If people like me keep trying to fit into spaces like the House of Commons, which run according to a narrative of power and privilege designed to exclude us, how can we expect those spaces to change? We need politics to be different, but the powers-that-be keep fiddling round the edges, not attacking the structure itself, which was designed to reinforce the status quo. We want our communities to be friendly and welcoming to all, but fear causes us to put up bigger fences. We want diversity, but we don’t want inclusion, which requires us to move out of our comfort zones towards equity. We want to check the right boxes, but we’re scared to do the work that would mean that change becomes real.
In Ottawa, I stood out so starkly I started to crack. Still, I had every opportunity to play it safe—I had the respect of most of my Liberal colleagues, and even of members across the aisle, one of whom told me early on that I should enjoy my freedom while I could because it wouldn’t be long before I became a minister. Yet I chose to speak up about mental health, including my own, and about racism and equity. Paradoxically, rather than losing myself, I found my voice, my authentic self, in the House of Commons and in the give and take of serving my riding as an MP. So when I realized that the party I belonged to said they valued my unique voice and perspective, but did not want to actually listen to me, what was I supposed to do? What’s the point of finding your voice, if it is muzzled because the simple truth of your message makes others uncomfortable?
Most importantly, I realized that my political journey did not start in 2014, when I first decided to put my name on a ballot. It started when a skinny little two-year-old girl from the island of Grenada in the Caribbean ended up in Canada. Although this journey felt like a roller coaster, electoral politics was only a small part of it—a scary part, sure, but I had been through scarier stuff and survived.
In Ottawa, I found the courage to stand up for myself and others, and, because of what I’d learned in the years before I got there, I realized that it was desperately important to maintain that integrity and my authentic self—so hard to do in a place that was not designed for me. It became clear to me that it was absolutely imperative that I resist the temptation to settle down and shut up, and abandon my new-found sense of purpose. In those four years in Ottawa, I found parts of me I thought were permanently lost or buried too deep to ever see the light again. I used my time in Ottawa to speak up for people who were not often heard in the House of Commons, which was a good thing, but I could not see how my efforts inside that place would lead to the kind of change we need.
Yes, I’d spent a whole day crying over my decision to walk away—I hate to let people down, and I knew that so many I respected would believe I had done just that. But I could not see how to reconcile the demands of party politics with the awakening I’d undergone. I had to leave. Sometimes the most powerful action you can take is to refuse to remain a part of the machine that is keeping you down. For a bold Black woman to keep hammering away on the political machine from the inside only enabled the people running it to say, “Yes, we can hear you hammering! Don’t worry, we’ll take all your concerns into account in the fullness of time.”
That did not sit well with me. After all, we were supposed to be doing government differently. That is what I signed up for—to be bold, transformative and deliberate. We are running out of time to make important and necessary changes, not only in politics, but in every aspect of ourselves as human beings. I didn’t know that before I got to Ottawa. But I know it now.
Excerpted from Can You Hear Me Now by Celina Caesar-Chavannes. Copyright © 2021 Celina Caesar-Chavannes. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.