How Celina Caesar-Chavannes Took On Ottawa (& Trudeau) Her Way

The following is an excerpt from Celina Caesar-Chavannes' new memoir, Can You Hear Me Now?
PHOTO: COURTESY OF Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star/Getty Images.
I found that getting help was the hardest part of the challenges that now faced me. Mental illness clouds the mind so that every thought turns negative. First, I dreaded making the phone call to the doctor. Then my mind raced ahead to dreading the thought of the doctor even finding out about my depression. I imagined the doctor calling friends, and the friends calling friends, until the whole country knew that I was depressed. And then, of course, I would lose the general election. I was so panicked about people finding out about my depression it was difficult to take action.
I eventually reached out to Dr. Jane Philpott, a physician practising in Markham-Stouffville, which was not far from Whitby; she also would be running as a Liberal in the upcoming election. Jane calmed me down and was able to confirm for me that I was in fact suffering depression. She then wrote a prescription and referred me to a psychiatrist in her team. I have always believed that if you do not ask, you do not get. But there was something close to impossible about asking for help when your mind would much rather stay sick. The only thing that got me to the doctor was my promise to my husband Vidal and the fact that we were sacrificing so much.
In the weeks that followed, I got treatment and took my medication. When the cloudiness of my brain lifted, I needed to figure out how to win the upcoming election. The whole campaigning thing was turning into a Pyramid of Champions, with my opponent, Pat Perkins, as the new version of my childhood rival, Alex. But before I could figure out what I needed to do to beat her, I had to stop and have a talk with my old adversary, Ms. Take. I needed to figure out how “I” lost the election — not what other people did, or how circumstances played out, but what role I played in the loss. It sounds a little masochistic, but I sat and reflected and wrote down every wrong turn I made in order to figure out what I could have done better.
That’s probably the most important thing to consider when facing adversity or when looking deep into the spiral of your own misfortune. What could I have done differently? I was the only person I could control (at least most of the time). I was the only person who could change the future outcome.
I discovered that the most salient memories for me to replay were the occasions Justin Trudeau came to Whitby to help campaign. During each visit, he took the time to speak with media. I saw myself, each time, standing at his side, subliminally pleading with the reporters not to ask me any questions. I was petrified at the thought of getting an answer wrong, even though I should have been confident in my own ability to intelligently counter any query. For some reason, all four times I was in this situation, I forgot that I was not a complete idiot. I stood beside him, completely mute, and that angered me. Why had I done that? Why was I afraid to answer questions? Why did I let him talk for me?

I had tried to run my campaign as a seasoned politician, when I should have been running it as the business woman I was. This time I had to show up as myself.

With a clear head, it did not take me long to realize that I’d tried to run the entire by-election campaign as if I was someone who knew about politics. Talk about imposter syndrome. My ignorance was immense. My daughter Desiray, who had been taking Grade 10 civics during the summer of 2014 to get ahead in high school, would come home with her notes and we would study them together. Then she would quiz me on things like the different areas of the House of Commons.  
“Mom, now where does the prime minister sit?” she’d ask, showing me the layout.  
I would point timidly to a section of the page.  
“No, Mom. No. That is the opposition side. The PM sits on the government side.”
My other daughter Candice was charged with helping me remember the names of past prime ministers. She was ruthless. Every mistake I made she had me writing out lines of Canadian political history. (I was never that hard on my children when they did their homework. Where did they learn such behaviour?)  
I tried, in vain, to consume as much Canadian politics as possible, like I was back in university cramming for an exam. The more I tried to learn, the more I didn’t learn. It also did not help that I had been completing my final assignments for my EMBA, and the last one was due on November 13, four days before the by-election.  
I had tried to run my campaign as a seasoned politician, when I should have been running it as the business woman I was. This time I had to show up as myself. I needed to remember who Celina was and gently nudge her to the edge of the deep end, where I would be the one pushing her in, not Dr. Greenwood. I could swim in political waters, but not if I kept pretending to be someone I wasn’t. The Celina who could win was the woman who was more than capable of managing complex problems and coming up with creative solutions for her clients. The one who looked up at the night sky and did not see stars, but connected the little bright dots and saw the constellations. If that Celina did not show up and give it her all, the results would be the same.  
The next time I was supposed to head to my campaign office before I went out to knock on doors, I put on a long, red, summer dress with a red and white design on the bodice. I made sure my make-up was done properly. When I pushed open the door and made my entrance, the entire room stopped and stared. Clearly,  I was not wearing my canvassing clothes.  
“Hey, Celina. What’s going on?” someone called.  
“You look great,” another blurted. That comment tickled me. Had I looked like shit when I’d gone canvassing before? I announced to my volunteers that we were suspending the campaign for the rest of the day, because going forward we needed to do things a little differently. I confessed my fears around politics and told them that for us to have any chance of winning — and for the victory to mean anything if I eventually did win — I needed to run the campaign my way. I was totally on board with the main Liberal message, which was that to have a better, more equitable, more diverse public life, we needed to do politics differently. That suited me. “In order to do politics differently, we need to do it differently,” I said, “by being ourselves. I know that I can do this, but I need to change the shape of this campaign.”
I went to the board and circled the date of the election on the calendar. “October nineteenth. Election Day! What do we have to do to get a win on Election Day?” To make it work in terms I understood and with tactics I’d employed successfully for my clients, we worked backwards from October 19, writing down all of the necessary steps to win.  
Next, I changed the usual political titles. I would not act as the candidate but as CEO of the campaign. The Chief Financial Officer would be responsible for fundraising and understanding how much money we needed to raise to achieve our goals, purchase signs and print other materials. The Human Resources Manager would recruit volunteers, learn their skill sets and assign them accordingly.  Everyone who came to volunteer would be given a job, even the children. I loved the child volunteers. One of them, Alex, was bilingual, so his job became to tutor me for half an hour every day in  French. I decided that fifth graders Evan and Hazel, another couple of kids who knew more about politics than I did, were more than capable of canvassing door to door by themselves. Their parents may have thought I was crazy, but I put them in charge of canvassing their own polls. The Marketing and Communications teams were responsible for deciding which communication materials went to which parts of the riding, once we had divided it up into appropriate sections depending on the demographics. They also decided where to put signs, and which signs to use.  
After I was done assigning duties to the core team, I told them that I was confident in the ability of each of them to execute their part of the overall strategy and recruit the right volunteers to help them. I was not going to micromanage, because my job was to be the face of the brand and to go out “selling the product” by knocking on doors. Finally, I vowed that, having made these changes and committed the team to campaign in the best way I knew how, “If we wake up on the morning of October 20 and the results are not what we expected, I will be okay. I will know that we did our best, with what we knew best, and that will be good enough for me.” 
There were still some dark moments going forward, but none of them were about the campaign. I even took one of them as a kind of compliment: My company ReSolve Research Solutions, Inc., got audited three times between the by-election and the general election. I had been audited before, of course, but never three times in under a year. Was the Conservative government so threatened by the gains I was making as a candidate in a riding they’d viewed as secure that some one had a word with someone? Who knows? But the last audit happened on October 19, 2015 — Election Day.  

The confident, defiant person in that leather dress was about to clash with the history of colonialism, institutional sexism, racist immigration policy and present-day structural violence. I would need every ounce of strength, and all the lessons I’d learned from my past, to survive.

That night, friends and family piled into the kitchen and living room of our Whitby home to watch the results, as they had done during the by-election. But there was something different about the election results this time around, and not only the fact that Justin Trudeau was not there. During the by-election, as the polls were counted, the results oscillated back and forth between Pat Perkins and me until she was finally declared the winner. This time around, my numbers were ahead of hers in each and every poll. At around ten, I retreated to a private room in the house with Vidal and his dad for the final stretch. As we watched the screen, the lead between me and my opponents began to widen.  
“I think we are going to win this,” I said. They both looked at me and nodded, though Vidal still looked cautious. He had been through a year of hell, and he certainly did not want to get ahead of himself. Neither did I. I was nervous, too, but at that point my nerves were not about losing. The reality of the situation was setting in. If I was elected as the member of Parliament for Whitby, the real work was about to begin, and I had no idea what that meant. I had campaigned to be the voice of the riding in Ottawa and to advocate for my constituents, but I really had no idea what the job was all about.  
And then, there it was, a little after eleven that night — a check mark beside my name on the television screen, declaring that I had been elected. We cheered and we hugged, and then we headed out to celebrate my victory with all the people who had helped make it happen.
What was to come over the next few months and years would test who I am. It would require me to tap all the lessons I had learned to that point in my life. I not only entered a world that was foreign to me, it was a world that was not designed for me to be there at all — a place purposefully built by and for white men. To be honest, in that moment, I didn’t fully grasp how bumpy the ride was going to get. And I didn’t own a seat belt.  
I didn’t even clue in to the reality of my new circumstance on November 14, 2015, the day of my swearing-in ceremony. I deliberately did not choose to wear a simple modest dress or jacket and skirt combination. I knew that our official pictures would be taken that day and I was not about to blend in with the rest of the class of the 42nd Parliament. I couldn’t anyway. I was the only dark chocolate female member of Parliament in the group of 338 people.  
I went to the Rideau Centre mall in Ottawa, just east of Parliament Hill, searching for an outfit that would serve notice that I came to slay, not play. In the end, I purchased a black leather Karl Lagerfeld dress, a faux fur black gilet and black leather BCBG ankle-height stiletto boots. I figured that if people were going to talk about me anyway, I might as well give them some thing to talk about.  
The ceremony was held in the Railway Committee Room of Centre Block, the large room where the Official Opposition gathered for weekly caucus meetings. As I placed my hand on the Bible, the Clerk mentioned that every member of Parliament who had preceded me had entered history by taking this oath and then signing their name into the record. As I proceeded to do this, my family members could not help but notice the enormous painting of the Fathers of Confederation hanging above my head. As I stood beaming in front of my guests, who had travelled from Whitby, Toronto and Grenada to be present, I was oblivious to the imagery. But as months turned to years on Parliament Hill, every now and then I thought back to the audacity of that Black woman standing boldly below the Fathers. The confident, defiant person in that leather dress was about to clash with the history of colonialism, institutional sexism, racist immigration policy and present-day structural violence. I would need every ounce of strength, and all the lessons I’d learned from my past, to survive.
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
Can You Hear Me Now? is out Feb. 2. Available to buy here.

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