By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
WHITBY, Ontario — Celina Caesar-Chavannes, the Member of Parliament for Whitby, is willing to facilitate meetings between the African Canadian community and the federal government, but believes the community has to come together first, to identify its priorities.
She says there are many opportunities in the federal budget for African Canadians to tap into, and some might require asking her or their local MPs about them.
In an exclusive interview with Pride News Magazine — Publisher, Michael Van Cooten and Contributing Writer, Neil Armstrong — at her constituency office in Whitby, the Grenada-born politician says, overall, the federal budget has done exceptionally well for young people.
OPPORTUNITIES IN THE 2016 FEDERAL BUDGET
The grants for postsecondary education have been doubled and students do not have to pay back their loans until they are making over $25,000, annually, which is impacting low- to middle-income families – 350, 000 students will be affected.
“We know that many of our kids are from some of those families that are disadvantaged,” Caesar-Chavannes noted.
The government is doubling the amount of Canada Summer Jobs Program and has identified vulnerable communities – indigenous Canadians, immigrants and under-served youth with disabilities, people who are from single-parent families — as being the priority groups for those jobs.
She says the Black community is going to get extreme advantage from that and wants the community to make sure that it happens.
A number of studies have shown that minority and black-owned companies and suppliers of services do not always have equal access and outcome for infrastructure and public sector-issued contracts.
Asked what will the government be doing to support access to the contracts for Black community businesses, Caesar-Chavannes said Judy Foote, Minister of Public Services and Procurement, has set out to change the mandate for the services.
She says, animatedly, that small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are now going to be given greater access to procurement from the government.
“This is something that has been announced; it is available. I have her (Minister Foote’s) parliamentary secretary come into the riding to talk to our Whitby Chamber of Commerce and so I, again, would invite professional organizations, like the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA), to that.
“They really need to be advocating on behalf of those small to medium-sized businesses. They should be meeting with the minister, the minister’s staff, the parliamentary secretary, in order for them to be able to know this is a concern from the community,” the Whitby MP advised.
Caesar-Chavannes says the government has made a historic commitment in infrastructure spending and, that part of that, is the innovation agenda that goes towards clean and sustainable technologies.
“We, as a community, also have to start to think how do we change what we’re delivering to fit a modern-day economy, a sustainable economy, one in which environmental stewardship and economic benefits go hand in hand. In that respect, some of the businesses that we’re currently running also need to modify to be able to have access to that $1.2billion in spending that we’re investing,” she counselled.
She says Jamaica is always in the newspapers, partnering with the United States on green innovative technologies.
“If the Black community says this is something that we want; we want greater access because, as a member of the Jamaican Diaspora — using Jamaica as an example because they’re doing phenomenal work with the United States — as a part of the Diaspora, we want to be able to figure out how we can work together to increase trade, or to be able to import what’s happening in Jamaica or whatever, that is something, that’s a conversation that needs to be had,” she stated.
But, she says, to make this happen organizations need to come together.
“You have a professional body, the BBPA, some of those membership fees, if there are membership fees, need to go towards advocacy. I cannot be advocating for the Black community to get funding within the government; it’s impossible, she said, adding, “And if you hear me speak, I’ll always speak about coming together. We need to come together and start really advocating, whether you’re the BBPA or health organizations or the Black legal body, come together and advocate on what are the issues that are (of) key importance to you.”
Regarding a question about what support there is in the budget for members of the Black community for new business start-ups and access to venture capital, she said the government understands that Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) are the backbone of the community.
She revealed that when she started her business, ReSolve Research Solutions, 10 years ago, she had a couple of options in her business plan: access venture capital or get customers.
“Accessing venture capital is an enabler, it enables you to function but it doesn’t enable you to grow and succeed. Access to customers does that. Our budget has done a very good job of putting money into the pockets of Canadians through our Canadian Child Benefit, through decreasing taxes for the middle class and allowing people to be able to spend in your shop allows you to grow. So, it’s not necessarily that it is in the budget – better ways to gain access to venture capital – but there is capacity in the budget to allow those businesses to grow,” she said.
Caesar-Chavannes says one of her mottos is: “If you’ve thought of something twice, you’ve thought about it one too many times.”
She wants anyone who is thinking about accessing the $1.2Billion and need answers to come to her or to go to their local MP.
“That’s what our community needs to do a better job of, like this is what we have, we know it’s there. This is what we want, either advocate as a group or as an individual. I would suggest if you’re going to come to me as a parliamentary secretary, come to me as a group, cause we need to have national programs but within your community there is a lot of available funding for businesses who are trying to do things a little bit differently.
The Economic Advisory Council (EAC) to the Finance Minister does not have anyone Black on it, but Caesar-Chavannes says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made it very clear that “diversity and our cultural representativeness is of critical importance to this government.”
She said the EAC is not the only group that is advising the Finance Minister or the Prime Minister.
The government agrees that it was a very short budget consultation and that there was not a lot of time because they started in October and had to sort of truncate the whole budget season, she said.
“But it was very open, it was online, we had town halls, I had consultations in this office to say what do we want to see in this budget.”
The Whitby MP says the Black community needs to start to coalesce to identify its priorities.
“One of the reasons that, in February, I agreed to do a Black History Month event was because I said the only way that I would attend an event, and I was very particular about this and I did not waiver, was if the prime minister had a roundtable with some of the leaders within our community to discuss ways of facilitating getting some of those priorities back. Not to identify the priorities but how do we, as a government, start to really, actively, engage our community. How do we do that, let’s start formulating ways to make that happen and give our community leaders the tools to be able to bring their organizations together to identify those priorities,” she said.
Over the last few months she has been working with the Prime Minister’s Office to make that happen, nationally, as a strategy.
She said the strategy is not a short-term thing but will take a while before it is implemented so as to get the priorities back.
The first meeting was held to discuss the process and it was made clear that if the government wants to be engaging and wants feedback, it has to actively do so – not passively assume to understand the various needs from coast to coast to coast.
For the second step, Caesar-Chavannes would like to see communities have champions, a small, critical mass of people to affect change.
“You don’t need to have masses and masses, just a small critical mass of champions in their communities that are going to then, like a wheel spoke, go out and talk to the different community groups, instead of bringing all the community groups together,” she added.
She hopes that this group will start to distill information about the issues that might be municipal, provincial or federal and identify the top three issues that they will bring to the federal government, either between now and the next election or by the next election.
“Now the even bigger question is how do we facilitate getting all of that information back, so that we have all of these critical groups across the country. How do we get that information back and this is one of the areas where I will help to facilitate to make sure that that information gets back to the government and that the Black community actually has something by which to say this is what we want as a community. And the brilliance of this program is that it can be rolled out to other ethnic communities as well.”
The idea for this came to her through American talk show host, Tavis Smiley, who a few years ago, had The Covenant with Black America, published in 2006, which outlined the needs of Black America.
She said the political party that agreed to address those pressing concerns gained the votes of African Americans.
“We are such a powerful force, people are powerful but they need to be able to come together under some key issues to be able to affect change. Individually, you’re just one vote,” Caesar-Chavannes said.
On the matter of individuals becoming involved in the budget consultation process, Caesar-Chavannes said it was an open invitation to provide information and people should have been in touch with their MPs.
The next time around, she would advise people to, once they hear the pre-budget consultations have started, get in touch with their MPs.
“The BBPA should schedule meetings with the Finance Minister’s office, his parliamentary secretary’s office, my office.”
Since she has been in office, she said she has met with several organizations, on a weekly or fortnightly basis, that come to those meetings to discuss the reason their industry is critical.
“We need to do a little bit more of that and not just to me. It doesn’t just need to come to me. It needs to go to their local MPs, it needs to go to the Minister himself, his parliamentary secretary, meet with the staff.”
She is telling all the associations in the Black community the same thing – “get yourselves together and come to me with a proposal that works.”
She cannot guarantee that the Finance Minister is going to meet with anyone from the Black community but “what you should be able to guarantee is that our community will meet with the Finance Minister.”
“And I will continue to pester media organizations to make sure that that happens. It really needs to be that it is the community meeting with the Finance Minister, not the other way around.”
Caesar-Chavannes says there is $168.2million in the Canada Cultural Spaces Fund for renovation and construction of arts and heritage facilities and wondered if anyone from the community is taking advantage of this opportunity.
UN COMMITTEE ON ECONOMIC, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL RIGHTS REPORT
Caesar-Chavannes said in the meeting that the Prime Minister had with the Black community in February, he talked about “the importance of our community to the Canadian landscape.”
“However, even in that conversation, it is very important, critical to note, that if the UN makes a recommendation that Canada undertakes systematic measures to protect or to do better by the rights of people of African Canadian descent, we can do so much as the government.”
She said what is needed is a two-way conversation involving the community and the government.
“Whatever it is to protect our community has to come from the community. Those priorities, whether it’s 100 things or 10 things that they would really like to see to help our community, I think it’s critically important to have that come from the community and, again, I will facilitate that meeting with the Prime Minister. I will facilitate that meeting with the Prime Minister’s Office or whoever else needs to be included in that, but we need to hear some of that from the community.”
Caesar-Chavannes said one of the reasons why the facilitation of the roundtable was so important was to start addressing some of those issues.
“We can’t use the same old way of working and expect different results. We have to do things a little bit differently and, by a little bit differently, I mean kind of a lot differently. We have to put aside what we are competing with each other against, figure out the commonalities across organizations, what we want to do that is similar and we could advocate for, and then start that conversation. Start with me. Have that conversation with me. I’m right beside the Prime Minister,” she said, in answer to a question about the government addressing anti-Black racism in Canada.
Caesar-Chavannes’ call for advocacy is similar to a recommendation made in a report three years ago in Toronto.
In 2013, the report, Towards A Vision For The Black Community, authored by Hamlin Grange, Gervan Fearon, Peter Sloly, Mitzie Hunter, Danielle Dowdy, Mark Beckles, Audrey Campbell and Sharon Shelton, was launched at the Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA).
Its genesis wa from a gathering at the JCA in January 2012 to celebrate the 2009 inauguration of President Barack Obama and “to reflect on the implications of this fundamental change in the political landscape at what was called a “family meeting”.”
One of the recommendations notes that many of the Black community’s challenges and opportunities require political will and leadership to be addressed.
“A clear and effective ‘get-out and vote’ campaign must be launched within the community to increase voter participation and citizenship. Political parties need to conduct outreach to facilitate a more representative democracy in support of more inclusive governance. Equally important, members from the Black community need to get involved in the overall political process, which includes keeping abreast of what’s happening within government, volunteering, taking up a political cause, lobbying government and basically engaging the political system in and outside of election periods,” notes the recommendation. The conclusion of the report is that “there must a Black Community Renaissance and Revitalization.”
WORK AND FAMILY
The Whitby MP has been in office for six months and when asked how her expectations matched the reality of her work as a politician, she said she expected some down time.
“It’s very demanding, so I don’t book anything on Sunday and I say that, knowing that I travel back to Ottawa Sundays.”
She has until 4pm with her family and then Monday to Saturday she is at events, meetings or giving talks. She said she has a partner and a husband, Vidal Chavannes, who is remarkable.
During the campaign he quit his job as the vice president, academic at a college to support her. He is now working from home and working on his doctorate. She said she had to divest from her company so she transferred it over to him.
“It’s a lot smaller but he’s starting up his consulting again and finishing his doctorate. He’s able to pick up the kids and drop them off. It’s a role reversal but we’ve been so used to doing that all of our lives – our married life anyway – where he would work extra so that I could start the company, and then I would work extra so that he could finish his masters,” she revealed.
She adds “as exhausting and crazy as it has been, it has been wonderfully, beautifully awesome.”
Caesar-Chavannes says her 17-year-old daughter, Desiray, is the political wonk of the family. She does mock UN and model parliament and has been to conferences in Toronto, Montreal and New York.
Candice, 11, is an Earth Rangers ambassador, who has raised thousands of dollars for Earth Rangers and is in tune with the environment and a green way of thinking.
She noticed that her son, Johnny, 7, who recently got into a gifted school program, started chewing on his clothes, every Sunday, when she was to head back to Ottawa.
“I didn’t know what it was and I kept saying stop doing that. I actually said it in one of our caucus meetings, just talking to the ladies, and they said he’s nervous. You need to tell him that mommy is going to be home every Friday after school and make sure you’re home every Friday. And then we started doing that, ‘Johnny, mommy is leaving but you know I’ll be coming back on Friday. Friday I’m going to be here after school,’ and he stopped. He just needed to know that mommy was going to be there at some points and I am there. He’s totally fine when I’m there. It’s good. He’s the one that I worried about the most but he’s good.”
The PM’s Parliamentary Secretary said her parents and her in-laws are very proud of her accomplishment; sometimes her father-in-law walks around in his Team Celina shirt and she tries to persuade him to take it off.
There has been a heavy premium placed on education by her Grenadian culture and this is something she tells her children.
“Politics was never an endgame for me. I never wanted to be in politics, wasn’t interested; never took a Poli. Sci. course, nothing. And, one of the things that I tell my children is do the best that you can today, and tomorrow the doors will open for you. So it doesn’t mean that you need to study politics to end up into politics, because you’ve gone that route. Sometimes you take many different routes but they’ve always been upwardly mobile, always been advancing. Everything that I’ve done has been one step above the previous one.”
She revealed that in her house, her children have one job.
“They have one job, I do everything else. I pay the bills, I look at the mortgage, I clothe them, I feed them – you have one job and you better do it well, and that is in school. They don’t have to work. They hardly have chores, they’re spoiled, they’re overindulged and they have one job to do and that is to work hard (at school).”
ADVICE FOR AN ASPIRING POLITICIAN
If she had to give advice to a young person wanting to enter representational politics, the Liberal MP highlighted three things.
“The one thing that I would say is, number one, school, no matter what it is you’re doing, kill it, kill the game; just be amazing at it, okay. So study hard. That’s number one.”
“Number two is commit to yourself that you’re always going to be the best you that you can be, so I always talk to students about I own a company that is Celina Inc. Celina Incorporated is my brand, it is my professional brand, it is how I look, it’s how I talk, it’s what I give to people. It’s the trust that they have in me when I say I’m going to do something I’m going to give them 110. I’m not going to half-step so commit to whatever You Inc., whatever that is, whatever you want your brand to look like, whatever you want people to know you for — that is critically important.
“The third piece of advice is to just be authentically you.”
On the day that she was sworn into office, Caesar-Chavannes said 140 people – her family and many of the constituents of Whitby included – were packed into a room which had massive pictures of the Fathers of Confederation.
She said she envisioned herself as a little Black girl, and there was the clerk telling her that every person who has been a member of parliament has signed their names into this history book.
“At that moment I recognized that all of my flaws, all of my mistakes ….got me to the point where I’m signing my name in the history book, under the Fathers of Confederation, who look nothing like me.”
In 2017, Canada will celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation and she wants members of the Black community to talk to their MPs about programs to mark this milestone.
“There is so much funding, through the Canada 150 Program, for different initiatives, small things, big things, you name it. And people have been coming to me and asking and I’ve just been saying, go to your MP and ask them. Ask them about celebrating next year in a way that speaks to the future of your organization or the future of our community.”
Michael Van Cooten, publisher of Pride News Magazine, made the observation that two Canadian Prime Ministers have had Parliamentary Secretaries that are Black women of Grenadian descent — former MP, Jean Augustine, with former PM, Jean Chrétien, and Caesar-Chavannes with the current Prime Minister.
“It seems a little bit odd that we’ve had two Parliamentary Secretaries to the Prime Minister and they’re both Black females who are Grenadian. It’s quite interesting,” she says, laughing, while suggesting it could become a research study for a student.