SHORTLISTED FOR THE 2021 SHAUGHNESSY COHEN PRIZE FOR POLITICAL WRITING
In ‘Can You Hear Me Now?,’ Celina Caesar-Chavannes digs deep into her life as a young Black woman, an entrepreneur and a politician. Her message may be that effective and humane leaders can grow from their mistakes and vulnerabilities if they are open-minded and willing.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, already a breaker of boundaries as a Black woman in business, got into politics because she wanted to make a bigger difference in the world. But when she became the first Black person elected to represent the federal riding of Whitby, Ontario, she hadn’t really thought about the fact that Ottawa wasn’t designed for someone like her. Celina soon found herself both making waves and breaking down, confronting at night, alone in her Ottawa apartment, all the painful beauty of her childhood and her troubled early adult life. She paid the price for speaking out about micro-aggressions and speaking up for her community and her riding, but she also felt exhilaration and empowerment. As she writes, This is not your typical leadership book where the person is placed in a situation and miraculously comes up with the right response for the wicked problem. This is the story of me falling in love, at last, with who I am, and finding my voice in the unlikeliest of places.
Both memoir and leadership book, Can You Hear Me Now? is a funny, self-aware, poignant, confessional and fierce look at how failing badly and screwing things up completely are truly more powerful lessons in how to conduct a life than extraordinary success. They build an utter honesty with yourself and others that allows you to say things nobody else dares to say–the necessary things about navigating the places that weren’t built for you and holding firm to your principles. And, if you do that, you will help build a world where inclusion is real. Just as Celina is now trying to do, in all her brilliance and boldness.
Raw, unadulterated, frank and in your face, Celina Caesar-Chavannes’ Can You Hear Me Now is a political junky’s absolute must-read.
Caesar-Chavannes memoirs her life from immigration to Canada from Granada to her term as a federal Member of Parliament, a life fully detailed, warts and all. Most often, what she doesn’t say speaks more loudly than what she does.
Her life as an abused child is torturous reading. Maybe a common occurrence in Granada, this kind of abuse would lead to criminal charges here these days. She survived because of her innate drive, her incredible determination and her deep devotion to living life authentically, one she believed she deserved.
Chavannes also survived a life of bullying, racism and microaggressions from school to society in general. Being Black in an era where there was much more open aggression and harassment of Blacks than today was obviously very excruciating. Compounding the problem, Celina was a student who excelled in her academics anywhere she put her mind to it, from secondary school to university. This led to envy and provocation by fellow students and even teachers as well.
Her post-graduation career led to statistical and medical research work, culminating with the creation of her very successful research consulting company, ReSolve (Resolve Research Solutions Inc.). Not good enough in her eyes, some kind of itch ragged at her constantly. Perhaps it was the earliest stages of the health challenges she would face later in life, perhaps it was her anger/revenge emotions roiling to a head in her psyche, but this mental chaos pushed her into considering politics as a new career opportunity and a final outlet to help resolve her inner turmoils.
A life of ups and downs
Celina’s life of ups and downs were extremes beyond the average, unwanted pregnancy, polarization and isolation in university. However, dealing with being Black was her greatest challenge. Self-taught coping mechanisms led to unrealized and surprising negative impact on her mental wellbeing.
Dealing with depression
Celina found professional assistance that brought the psychological disorders under control permitting her a more acceptable life. The same could not be said about her new career.
Politics, a new arena of issues
Celina never foresaw that the success of her second election campaign as the MP for the Whitby/Oshawa constituency would lead to unexpected turbulence and emotional disruption.
The sweet side of the bitter-sweet Ottawa experience: meeting important world-renown political figures, checking off of her bucket list item of meeting Barack O’Bama, travelling to foreign lands with her children. The bitter side, always related to her being Black, led to unexpected pain and disorder. The first Black woman elected to the House of Commons faced new interactions daily with politicians who had no knowledge or experience in dealing with a Black person in their political world, never mind a Black woman.
The problem was exacerbated by her own introspective analysis of this new world. The room temperature cooled noticeably whenever she entered. She was seated as an outlier in many meetings. She was met with indifference at conferences. The worst came from with her appointment as secretary to the Prime Minister. She was completely ignored when she needed help the most.
“Can You Hear Me Now?” speaks loudest at this point. Celina complains, criticizes and gripes, justifiably maybe, at being disregarded or being put on the back burner in the PMO’s office. Reverting to her intellectual energies, she self-learn the dynamics of her new role. There was no manual for it, no mentor and the PM himself was of no assistance.
Though she never openly describes Trudeau as being misogynistic or racist, from what the media has reported, Trudeau has issues in these areas. There is a legacy of racial ignorance from the days of his youth. Legacies of the Raybold-Wilson SNC Lavalin case linger even to today. But the inactivity in dealing with a novice parliamentarian thrown into the deep end as an executive of the PMO is excruciating reading.
Many readers may not identify easily with Chavannes in regard to her relationship and dynamics with the PMO, but they can recognize the incapability the general public has in regard to underperforming politicians. Accountability in the political world is the next election, by which time the electorate has often forgotten the political failures of poorly performing politicians.
Celina read the writing on the wall. In her eyes, her only recourse was withdrawal, resigning from the Liberal Party and committing to never campaigning again.
The sunset still glows brightly
As the sun set on her political career, it has not, in her life. Her family issues are under control, her children are doing well in the post-academic world, her business thrives, she continues developing her corporate networks. As importantly, if not most importantly, she manages and controls her mental health issues with professional help.
Perhaps the response to the final words of her book, “Can you hear me now?” should be….
We hear ya, Celina….loud and clear!