A keen emphasis on education since childhood has been a cornerstone of Celina Caesar-Chavannes life. It has also underpinned her approach as a parent.
“My parents came to a new country, from the small island of Grenada, which has a population less than the town of Whitby, and it is, you know, education, education, education — like you have to do well in school,” recounts Caesar-Chavannes. “This is why we’re here. And so that wasn’t a challenge.”
Caesar-Chavannes responded earning three degrees including an MBA in Healthcare Management and an Executive MBA, over the course of a wide-ranging career that has spanned multiple industries and a range of leadership roles.
“I would say that the focus on education is something that I brought forward,” she says during an interview with Lianne Castelino of Where Parents Talk.com. “Like that’s a really strong focus in this house — reading — having that foundation of a strong education is critically important.” She and her husband are the parents of three children, including one in her 20’s, a teen and a pre-teen.
The non-textbook education she received during childhood — dispensed primarily by her mother — is what Caesar-Chavannes says she continues to appreciate in new and profound ways.
“I believe I feared my mother, while she feared for me, and treated me the way that she knew the world eventually would,” says Caesar-Chavannes reflecting back on what she describes as a strict upbringing. “She knew that she was bringing up a young black girl in a space that had this great un-belonging, that was cold. And so she had to make sure that I was prepared for the space that I was going to eventually occupy.”
That space has included several years in the often intense, unforgiving spotlight of public office. During her time as a politician, Caesar-Chavannes was noted for being outspoken — both as a Liberal Member of Parliament and as an Independent representing the riding of Whitby, Ontario. Her exit from the Liberal caucus, a tense exchange with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and later her departure from politics all grabbed national headlines, with allegations of racism and tokenism also factoring in.
“I say now like, having left politics and sort of being that force that I was, she [her mother] actually did a good job preparing me for it,” says the 46-year-old firebrand.
In her first book, a memoir called, ‘Can You Hear Me Now: How I Found My Voice and Learned to Life with Passion and Purpose’, released in February 2021, Caesar-Chavez chronicles many of these experiences with searing honesty, while reflecting back on her upbringing, toggling between two vastly different cultures and managing high expectations.
“My mother and I, our relationship, has been tense for most of my life right up until my 40s,” she says. “And then it just dawned on me — I’m able to survive all this stuff because of the iron that sharpens you. She was the iron that sharpened me and I dedicated the book to my mother. I’m able to have this perseverance that exists through some tough situations, because she has been this absolute force.”
How much of Caesar-Chavannes’ own parenting approach is adopted or adapted from how she was raised?
The entrepreneur, speaker, and business consultant, who currently serves as Senior Advisor of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Initiatives and Adjunct Lecturer at Queen’s University, tackles that topic and more during the video interview, including:
- The impact of her life in politics on her marriage and children
- What she would ‘do over’ if she could
- Advice for parents, especially women, coping with work and family demands
- How she discusses tokenism and racism with her children
Watch the full interview with Celina Caesar-Chavannes:
Click for video transcription
TRANSCRIBED INTERVIEW: CELINA CAESAR-CHAVANNES & LIANNE CASTELINO
Hello and welcome to Where Parents Talk TV. My name is Lianne Castelino.
Our guest today is a mom of three. She is also senior advisor of equity diversity and inclusivity initiatives and adjunct lecturer at Queen’s University. She’s also former politician having served as an MP in the Liberal government and sitting as an independent for the riding of Whitby. Her portfolio includes entrepreneur, speaker, business consultant, and most recently best-selling author. Her new book is called ‘Can you hear me now? How I found my voice and learn to live with purpose and passion’. It was published in February of 2021. We’re delighted to welcome Celina Caesar-Chavannes. Hi, Celina.
Hi, how are you?
I’m good. Let me ask you,I know some of this is covered off in the book, which I have not read yet. But it is on my list of things to read for sure. Okay, I wanted to talk to you about your childhood a little bit. Now you arrived with your family as new immigrants to Canada, you were two years old, when you arrived in the GTA? How would you go about describing your childhood just in general, and how you were raised in the two different cultures, you’re from Grenada, and then you come to Canada?
That was, um, that was really interesting. I, you know, I write about in the book, and I talk about, you know, this sort of great sense of unbelief, longing, you know, coming from Grenada, which, of course, is lush and green. And, you know, all the houses are painted, much like you’d see on the East Coast with different vibrant colors. And then I landed in, in Toronto, and I have one scene in my head of this apartment building that we lived in, and it just seemed dark compared to, you know, the tropical paradise that I’d come from. And I came in January. So I mean, that really doesn’t add a lot of light to the situation. But I, my childhood was really focused a lot on education. My parents, of course, you come to a new country, from the small island of Grenada, which has a population less than the town of Whitby, and it is, you know, education, education, education, like you have to do well in school. This is, this is why we’re here. And so that wasn’t a challenge. I did really well in elementary in high school, and, you know, watch my parents kind of grow from, you know, immigrant family in, you know, apartment building in rexdale, to getting the first townhouse than their first semi detached than their first house. So I, I saw, you know, the hustle. And I saw, you know, what, what hard work and education to do.
Let me ask you, how would you describe your parents parenting approach? Again, trying to meld those two different cultures?
Yeah. So, I mean, the Caribbean culture, I think, with a lot of people from the Caribbean compared to how I parent today is really different. I mean, I think they’re the theme is that there is a degree of respect, and there’s, you know, that strictness, so to speak. I don’t believe in corporal punishment, I don’t believe in hitting my kids. So that was, that was something that’s a little bit different from how I was brought up. And, you know, there is that sense of you could be, you can have your kids respect you, but not necessarily fear, like who you are. And, you know, I use the line in my book that, you know, I believe, I feared my mother while she feared for me, and treated me the way that she knew the world eventually would. So she knew that she was bringing up a young black girl in a space that was, you know, had this great un-belonging, this place that was cold. And so, you know, she had to make sure that I was prepared for the space that I was going to eventually occupy and I say now like, you knowo, having left politics and sort of been that force that I was, um, she actually did a good job preparing me for the world that I got into.
Well, it’s so interesting, because it sounds like as you look back on it, and certainly as I’m sure you were writing the book, as you reflected on how how you were raised that it would ended up being a good thing.
Well, you know what, I’m actually just writing a journal that goes with the book and I just finished doing that chapter. And in, in 2018, it was a good 2018 or 2019. You know, my my mother and I, our relationship has been tense for most of my life right up until my 40s. And then it just dawned on me, I’m able to survive all this stuff because of the iron that sharpens you know, she was the iron and I sharpened me and I dedicated the book to my mother saying, the iron that sharpens me I’m I’m able to be resilient, I’m able to, you know, have this perseverance that exists through some tough situations, because she has been this absolute force, which, you know, as a mom, myself, I think I’m the same way. But I’m a little up Nope, not not a little, a lot more liberal. You know, my, my kids have been traveling daughters have been traveling alone, since they were 13. I could even have a sleepover at 13. So they travel to foreign countries and, you know, across the world, and I could even have a sleepover, so a lot different in approach.
So what aspects then of the way you were raised would you say that you’ve carried over? Or is it the majority of it is very different. And you’ve just adapted to the way you do things in a in a Western culture?
Yeah, so I’ve adapted but I would say that the focus on education is, is something that I brought forward. Like, that’s a really strong focus in this house reading, having that foundation of a strong education is critically important. And, you know, I, I keep wondering if I’m a strict Mom.I don’t know.
Hashtag that you’re putting your children on and ask them.
I’m sure that they’re saying she’s not strict with Johnny, who’s my, my last. He’s 12. But the girls, I’m sure the girls will say she’s strict with us. But then they’re the ones that travel all around the world. So I don’t know, I am I, I always say, you know, if you want this to be the last time you do something, make it happen. And they’re just like, Oh, my God, what does that mean? Does this mean it could be? So I don’t have to run off a list of things that they can and cannot do. They just know. You want this to be the last time you go to the mall? Make it happen. That’s it.
That that’s a lot to think about if I’m one of your kids, for sure. But let me ask you. So prior to making the decision to enter politics, how did you and your husband and your family go about discussing how you’re going to navigate, you know, this incredibly important, intense job of being a politician in Canada at that level at the federal level, and try to raise a family?
So it’s interesting, because I’m very impulsive. So there isn’t a lot of discussion. So it’s usually a yeah, I think I’m gonna run baby. Run Where? politics? What do you mean, I’m gonna run federal politics? Sure. Yeah, I think so. Okay, what do you need? That’s usually how it goes. And then and then we figure it out as we go along. So of course, you know, nobody in my family has ever been involved in any kind of politics, let alone federal politics. And then we were sort of thrown into a by election. So there wasn’t any real preparation. From the day that I thought I was going to be running an election, you know, which would have been a year and a half later. And then all of a sudden, a by election happens. And it’s like, Oh, God, yeah, baby. You know what I was talking about running in that election. It’s not 2015. It’s this year. It’s like, in eight months. Wow.
So let me let me ask you this, then what? How would you describe your husband’s parenting style? Because clearly, he goes with the flow is what it sounds like, which is tremendous.
Yeah, he’s a lot like his dad, he is a real, you know, go with the flow kind of guy. He is my protector. So you know, I’m very impulsive. I like to just kind of, you know, live on the wild Scott side, you know, I go off on a whim, I say, yes, that stuff. And he’s like, more cautious. I need to protect to you. Maybe you should think about this baby. You know, maybe we shouldn’t do like, you know, federal maybe we should do municipal politics that I’m like, No, no, no, let’s go. Let’s don’t go go. And he’s more of a let’s can we calm down a little bit. But I always win.
So you were in Ottawa, you lived that life, the spotlight is incredibly intense. And in your case, it became more and more intense. Describe for us how you went about trying to balance or is balance not even a word that entered the equation? I mean, how did you go about with those two dual roles, each of which were so important at the same time?
Yeah. So you know, and I talked about this my book and it’s called, there’s no such chapters actually called there’s no such thing as balance. So I tried, all though, I think unsuccessfully in most cases. to prioritize either my family or my work, right, he put things in balance, everything gets 50%. That’s not sustainable. So I give 100% of my job or 100%, to my family, and try to prioritize that. What I learned later on was that I was prioritizing my job and my family, but not prioritizing myself or my spouse really. So if when you’re prioritizing things in order in an order that is not sustainable, there really isn’t a point of prioritizing, you have to prioritize things in order of priority. And I was prioritizing, but not in a way that allowed me to have success in the prioritization muscles.
So what would you redo over and or what would you redo? And also, were there any regrets with what you did? I mean, I think most parents will say, I did the best I could, at that time. Did you feel that way? Or did you have any regrets.
So I don’t live with regrets. But I would say that I, in looking back, I knew that there were things that I could have done differently, that I made a choice at the time to just keep steamrolling ahead. So of course, you know, I ended up having what is called like a classic nervous breakdown in January of 2016. I knew from way before that, that I was suffering from depression, I just wasn’t getting, getting the treatment that I needed, wasn’t taking my medication, and then was continuing to work twice as fast twice as hard twice as everything to make sure that I was you know, staying on top of my game, so to speak, when I should have just calmed down a little. And then again, as work got more intense, I would increase sort of the amount of work that I was putting in, I was doing that so intensely, that I wasn’t kind of looking after myself, or you know, my relationship with my marriage. So, you know, those two things, I think, really suffered in the process. And, you know, I kept making these excuses for like, you know, myself and my husband work, we’re good. Like, if we look at a we’ll work with parents, partners, we’re friends, just a marriage part isn’t working so well. And that’s okay. Right? It’s, you know, it’s like a tire that have a puncture in that part, we just put air in it, well, eventually, you’re gonna have to fix it, or else you’re gonna have to replace the entire tire, right?
It’s interesting, because there are many women who will watch this, who will find themselves in the story that you just described in that sense of being in a pandemic, being may be forced out of the workforce, trying to balance work and home trying to figure out employment, a whole confluence of factors that people find themselves in now, especially women. What advice if any, could you offer to people in those situations right now?
Oh to be honest about them, first of all, and at first, be honest, and don’t beat yourself up. So I’m very honest, in my book around, you know, the challenges that with my marriage, the challenges that I’ve that might have my husband, I are still together. In fact, when my daughter read it, she’s been reading it along the way my 21-year old, and she read it and we’re like, we all have dinner together. And she says, We’re like calling Desiray come up for dinner. Don’t she’s like, No, I’m reading the book. I’m like desert, you know how it ends, like come up for dinner. She comes up she’s like, oh, man, I hope Selena but I’ll make it. City right here, we do make it But what I’d say is, you know, to women, like don’t be too hard on yourself. Don’t beat yourself over a bowl for it. Things happen. What I knew notice that I needed to do was I kept saying that my cup is full babe, I can’t put you in my cup. I can’t put you can’t put me on my job and my kids. And that’s all I could handle. But as I started writing and releasing some of the pains that I had with, you know, the miscarriages that I had right childhood as I started writing the book, which I was forced to contractual obligations with Penguin, I had to write it down. But as I was ready to go, I found that my book, my cup was getting less and less full. I was just holding on to a lot of stuff. And then as I started emptying that out subconsciously, because I was writing it like, you know, they say journaling is such a great thing to do, which I never thought before this moment, started writing it out. I started getting it, it started getting emptier and emptier. And then I was able to put my husband back in and myself back in my cup, and carry all four of those things that are priority, a priority to me in a way that was healthier. And so there’s, there’s just a lot of forgiving yourself that needs to happen. And a lot of just saying I did the best I could at the time. And I recognize that and I’m gonna be honest about And move forward from it.
When you look back on that period as a politician, which, you know, you go into great detail in the book, as I understand it, any sense of the impact that it had on your children?
Oh, for sure. Um, so we, I had death threats against me, the two younger children had death threats against them. my other daughter lived was in a foreign country, my eldest, so she she wasn’t exposed to a lot of the the trauma that was happening. And then we had to move twice. So I had a house. That was, it was on a dead end court, but the dead end court was beside a major Street. So we were really the high profile house. And it just wasn’t safe. So we had to move into a condo. And then when I decided I wasn’t, yeah, we’ve fourth floor, the top floor, we just didn’t want anybody to have access to where we lived. And, and then when I decided I wasn’t going to run again, we moved to where I am now, which is a very secluded part of, of the town that I live in. In Whitby, we don’t have a lot of neighbors, nobody could really see the house from any street. So it’s, yeah, the impact has been one in which I’ve had to really protect them. But the other thing that I’ve noticed, too, is that my, my kids had to protect me. You know, so they were on social media and at school, you know, dispelling garbage and challenging people’s opinions and their parents opinions, and things like that. So it was, I think it was, I think there was a, there was a resiliency built in everyone around how the world works for women, and in particular women of color.
On that note, I’m curious as to how you have conveyed the message of, you know, standing up against racism to your children, as they go through their lives and having experienced things in your life, how did you convey that message to them as to what they should do to continue to combat it?
Yeah. So you know, it’s interesting that this is a conversation that we’ve always had politics or otherwise, as a black family, we have to have those discussions. But it was interesting, you know, Johnny, my son was called the Edward in school during that period. And, you know, we went to school called the child was expelled, brought Johnny home, we kept asking him, are you okay? You know, is everything okay? is, you know, can we get you anything we brought him to play? Do? We got pizza that night, we had like a full, you know, anything you want, we’ll buy it for you to make you feel better. And he wasn’t mad. And I kept wondering, like, why is he not angry? It was bothering me that he wasn’t angry. And so the next day, I just said, Johnny, why are you angry about this? And he said, I was, but the kid got expelled. And it was the first time that it dawned on me that he actually got justice. And I started to cry, like, we were having dinner, we’re at the table and I said, Johnny, I’m 46 years, I’m 45 or 44. At the time, I said, I’ve never received justice. One racism, it’s happened to me. And so the conversation changed from you know, it was this may not happen to you again, where somebody says something to you, and there was an immediate consequence to that person. And then to what does it teach you about defending other people who may be experiencing homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, you know, religious discrimination. And it was a conversation about, you know, how it feels to find justice or to receive justice. Now pay it forward. Because that’s never happened in my lifetime. And he was, I think, 10 or 11. At the time.
That’s so powerful. And you know, it’s so interesting, because, obviously, so much has happened in the world since you left politics. It’s actually quite striking. And so I wonder, you know, we talked about the racism message, but tokenism. This is something that you’ve been outspoken about, you know, a lot has been documented about it. But I wonder, how do you convey that to your children, in light of everything that happened, certainly in the summer of 2020, and currently?
So it’s interesting. I’m always having these conversations with young people out in a way that, you know, they could digest this information. And I say to them, that, you know, diversity is not the strength of our country or any organization or our communities, if we’re just diverse but we’re living in silos. Then how is that strength, we have to like pull down the silos talk to each other, and start to agree that inclusivity which could get towards equity, it’s the conversations that we have that build that empathy that is required for equity. But the other thing is, you know, all of the the situations that we’ve had to navigate in the world, that people with privilege, you know, take for granted the challenges, we overcome the barriers that we we, we face and overcome, that builds value in us that that creates value irrespective or schooling in any respective of our work life, those barriers that we overcome, create value because of our intersecting identity. And therefore, when you enter into an organization, school, institution, a conversation, that value is an asset to those organizations, or those conversate. And people are not leveraging that asset. That’s when they leverage it, that’s when they’re being inclusive. When they don’t, you’re being tokenized. And it’s not your responsibility, to say, you know, to feel badly about being tokenized, it’s their, it’s their mistake, that they’re not leveraging that asset, it’s their problem, that they’re only using you for your skin or your gender. And it’s their loss, you know, when we can see the report in 2019, on the cost of racial and equity to the United States, and so that it will cost 6% of their GDP by 2028. That is the cost of not using the asset that you are, and that is not your fault. That’s on the organization.
That’s interesting, because so much of that, and you know, I’m sure there’s studies being done on it, when you talk about the asset not being leveraged stems from a place of fear. Yes. Right. So, you know, we could go down a rabbit hole, but I just think it’s really interesting, as a mother who’s lived a lot of this stuff that sort of, you know, a very scrutinized high level, do you feel like your kids understand that in light of the world, and how much it’s changed in this period of time?
I think they understand it. They’re very astute in terms of understanding how the world operates. I think what they don’t get is how pervasive white supremacy is, and how people would people want to keep their power, privilege and profit, even at the expense of understanding that equity brings brings value brings that one that one point that 6% of their GDP. So every organization if it’s going to cost the US 6% of the GDP, it’ll cost any organization, any community, any conversation part of this. So I don’t think they understand how pervasive that is within this system. And that’s something that they need to. I mean, they will understand I hope they never have to understand, like, my kids don’t understand why I’m at Queens as an equity diversity and inclusion advisor, like, why do you need to advise people on how to be fair?
Like, yes, it’s an excellent question, isn’t it?
Let me ask you, you kind of answered this question a bit earlier with your eldest child, but what was the reaction across all three of your kids to your book? Have
they read it?
Johnny has not read it. He’s my 12-year-old and he just, he’s just not that interested in that. He’s, it’s not a gaming system. He’s not that interested. But my two daughters have read it. And it’s interesting that I mean, they loved it. They said it was like reading the backstory of their lives. And so we had the dinner conversation, because the only thing that’s changed in COVID with our dinners, we always had dinners together. But we have DCs, which are dinner conversations. And we talked about anything from what’s happening on the news to what just better fruit or vegetable. And after the book came out, it was like this awkward silence around the DC and I was like, what, what does What’s going on? Like? I’m so why don’t you and dad still together?
Give me some peanut butter. Let me fill my mess.
Hold on a minute. I just have to finish chewing okay, she whispered in my mouth.
Don’t you love how our kids are? Raw honesty, just when you didn’t expect it.
Yeah, but I mean, we’ve always had. I mean, it wasn’t it wasn’t that traumatic. We’ve always been very open and honest. And we just said, you know, like, like I say in the book. You know, falling in love is easy, but you fall fast and hard in a distance and time that is unknown. And instead of myself and my husband bracing each other for The ending, we let each other go temporarily and we had to work back on, you know, once we impacted and were separated, then we had to work back to find each other. And we did and I said some we said, you know, some people don’t do that some people they fall they the impact is so brutal and hard that they they stay apart. Myself and your dad, we found each other again?
Certainly a very powerful lesson for children. Could you tell us what would be your most proud moment as a mom or moments? What are you most proud of?
Oh, my goodness. Um, I well, I’ve always said that I was probably this may sound really silly, but I was proud of my kids when they got out of the birth canal. I was like, You guys made it out. And they’re like, awesome. Like, it’s so great that you’re able to like come out of there and no stretch marks like I have no stretch marks. It’s like unbelievable. They did well, coming out of the birth cap. So everything that they’ve done on top of that is icing on the cake. Like they are they’re my heroes. They’re my joy there. My reason for being there, my everything. So I’m just being their mom. I’m like, I’m actually their mother.
That’s wonderful. Celina Caesar Chavannes, thank you so much for your time today. We really appreciate it.
Thank you. That was so quick. Thank you to your viewers as well and listeners.