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Former Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes on Black History Month: ‘There’s work to be done’

Former Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes on Black History Month
WATCH: Former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes is spending the month speaking about black history. That includes her personal experiences and how she felt discriminated against during her time in office. Aaron Streck has more.

Former Whitby, Ont. MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes is spending the month speaking about Black history.

That includes her personal experiences and how she felt discriminated against during her time in office.

Caesar-Chavannes and her family have travelled all over the world, and throughout her career, she’s had the chance to meet some inspiring people, she says.

“My parents came to Canada with $100 in their pocket,” said Caesar-Chavannes, who moved from Grenada at a young age.

Growing up in Brampton, she says she didn’t feel defined by the colour of her skin.

READ MORE: Ajax students use poetry to connect with Black history

“People used to call me all sorts of things, like ‘chocolate’ or ‘brown-noser,’ but I just thought those were observations. Yes, my skin does look like chocolate and my nose is brown,” said Caesar-Chavannes.

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While her two daughters are her heroes today, when she was younger, Celina was a exposed to a number of Black idols.

“I had books by Ben Carson, who was the first Black pediatric neurosurgeon that separated conjoined twins,” Cesar Chavannes recalled.

“I was reading books by Shirley Chisholm, first Black female to run in a presidential election.”

Marking Black History Month in Canada
Marking Black History Month in Canada

It wasn’t until she got into politics and became a public figure that she said she noticed how some people responded to a woman of colour.

The 45-year-old says she received a number of racist letters and emails during her four years on Parliament Hill.

“Speaking about race, speaking about microaggressions, even speaking about mental health, there was a sudden onslaught of, ‘hey who are you and why are you talking?'” said Caesar-Chavannes, describing the correspondence.

With February being Black History Month, Celina says it’s a way to help raise awareness of the role of Black Canadians in the country’s history — and their experience today.

READ MORE: Afro-Prairie Film Festival brings Black cinema to Winnipeg

“[It] doesn’t create a balance but tips the balance in terms of exposing Canadians to the Black history that is Canadian history,” said Caesar-Chavannes.

Allison Hector-Alexander, Durham College’s director of diversity, inclusion and transitions, says strides have been made but there’s still steps to be taken.

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“Yes, we share; yes, we talk; yes, we let people know how proud we are about Black history and being a Black person, but the other piece around the anti-Black racism [is] where the action is needed,” said Hector-Alexander.

As for Caesar-Chavannes, she’s in the midst of reading Jody Wilson-Raybould’s book.

“It shows where I think we are. I think we’re somewhere in here, where the door is not shut,” said Caesar-Chavannes.

“It’s opening but there’s work to be done.”