Former MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes says she sees a pattern of behaviour in the Liberal Party between her time in the caucus and their stance on the recent allegations against two former top figures in the federal government.
In an interview with Mercedes Stephenson on The West Block, Caesar-Chavannes — the first Black MP for her Whitby, Ont., riding and who left the Liberals to sit as an Independent in 2019 — said her experiences with the party makes her doubt assertions by the prime minister’s office that Justin Trudeau was unaware of allegations of wrongdoing against Gen. Jonathan Vance and then-governor general Julie Payette before they became public.
“We have two individuals at the highest level of our government — with the governor general and, during (the SNC-Lavalin affair) with the prime minister — saying that ‘people experience things differently,'” she said. “We’re getting the same messaging of ‘well, we didn’t quite know, well, people may be experiencing things differently.’
“I really got to (wonder), within a ‘feminist government’ …. is it actually rhetoric or is it a sincere conversation about ensuring that people are safe in their workplaces?”
Global News reported on Tuesday that Vance is facing allegations of inappropriate behaviour with two female subordinates when he was chief of defence staff. Military police announced on Thursday that they would launch an investigation into the allegations, which Vance denies.
Payette resigned as governor general in January after a report was completed following allegations that she had fostered a toxic workplace at Rideau Hall.
Caesar-Chavannes details in her new book, Can You Hear Me Now?, her experience in the Liberal caucus as a Black MP struggling to address systemic racism within the government and Canada as a whole — efforts she says fell on deaf ears among party leadership.
She quit the caucus soon after fellow Liberals Jody Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott resigned from cabinet over the SNC-Lavalin saga. Caesar-Chavannes had been a vocal supporter of the pair, who were subsequently booted from the caucus by Trudeau.
She also accused Trudeau of yelling at her angrily when she informed him that she would not be seeking a second term, an accusation the PMO has denied.
Caesar-Chavannes says her final days as an Independent MP were “lonely” and that leaving the Liberals in such an acrimonious way “broke her heart” after at first believing in the party’s feminist and equal opportunity platform.
“We had gone through a year-long #MeToo movement in which we were told that we should believe women when they’re harassed, when they’re bullied, when they’re pressured,” she said. “And it seemed like in those last days of the 42nd Parliament that our own government decided, especially with Jody Wilson-Raybould, that they were going to not believe her and leave her.
“It was convenient for them to say ‘believe women’ when it was part of the #MeToo movement, but when it was inconvenient for them, they left someone that was a real value to their team. And that was really disappointing.”
She says the Liberals’ track record on addressing racial equality has also not lived up to their initial promises.
“We had a majority government at the time, in 2015 to 2019, where we said we were going to repeal mandatory minimums,” she said. “We have a large displacement of Black and Indigenous people in our federal prisons. That didn’t happen.
“I think that there’s a lot of talk about doing certain things, but when it comes to actually executing, we’re not seeing much other than performance.”
Caesar-Chavannes also points to a proposed class-action lawsuit launched by Black Canadian civil servants last December, which accuses the federal government of decades of discrimination against Black employees that prevented them from being promoted to senior leadership positions.
Even when she found herself in a position of power — both as an MP and as a parliamentary secretary to Trudeau for the first year of her term — Caesar-Chavannes says she was excluded from conversations where she felt her voice would have been valuable, including investments in the Black Canadian community. She says she also faced silence from the PMO and other Liberal colleagues when she began pushing equity and race issues in 2018.
Her desire to speak out about both her experience in Parliament and the issues she cares about informed the title of her book, she says.
“I think Can You Hear Me Now? really is an expression of the fact that there’s things that I wanted to say while I was (in government) that never really came across,” she said. “And I’m hoping through this book people can understand my story.”