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Celina Caesar-Chavannes, the Liberal MP for Whitby is photographed at the University of Toronto's Hart House on March, 16 2016.
Celina Caesar-Chavannes, the Liberal MP for Whitby is photographed at the University of Toronto's Hart House on March, 16 2016.

women in politics

MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes’s path to Ottawa involved luck – and a lot of grit Add to ...

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

The large wood-framed mirror hanging in Celina Caesar-Chavannes’ home in Whitby, Ont., is the last thing she ever scavenged from a stranger’s trash, and it is the first thing she sees when she walks downstairs to her office.

“You look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘yeah, from where we came,’” she says.

Today, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, 41, is the rookie Liberal MP for Whitby, and last December, she was appointed a parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

As is the case with so many female MPs, the story of how she wound up in the House of Commons is equal parts serendipity, drama and hard work. It also involves strong support from other women.

Just over 10 years ago, she and her husband were nearly destitute – both professional and well-educated adults, they had two young children, and through a couple of missteps found themselves salvaging furniture from other people’s trash to furnish their basement apartment in Ajax, just east of Toronto.

“You don’t have a choice,” says Ms. Caesar-Chavannes about the humiliation of picking through someone’s garbage. “It was hard every time you did it. You felt that these eyes were staring into your back, judging you …”

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes came to Canada from Grenada when she was two years old. Her father Ray arrived with $100. A teacher in Grenada, he worked in Toronto as a janitor and eventually built a trucking business. She, her mother Odessa (also a school teacher in Grenada) and her two brothers all helped out in the business.

Five years ago, her parents bought a property back in Grenada, and now run a bed and breakfast there. Last year, they returned to Canada to see their daughter sworn in as an MP.

“Is it a dream? Or is it not a dream?” her father said in a phone interview from Grenada, describing his emotions as he watched the ceremony. His daughter, he says, was raised to be independent. “She just kept on going.”

After barely graduating with a science degree from the University of Toronto in 1998, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes met her husband, Vidal. They married and had a child, and while he taught school, she worked for a time driving a forklift, and then decided to go back to U of T for a research course.

Inspired by a professor, Carol Greenwood, who encouraged her research in nutrition and Alzheimer’s disease, and opened her eyes to new possibilities, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes went on to get an MBA.

“It’s been lovely to watch her grow,” says Dr. Greenwood says.

In the spring of 2004, just after their second daughter was born, Vidal had an opportunity to teach in England. They thought they could make a lot of money there, and travel.

They sold everything, but six months later they were back in Canada. The position was not what was advertised.

With no backup plan, she and her family lived for several months with her parents, and then with her husband’s parents, and with other relatives. She describes it as a year of “living nomadically.”

Eventually, they moved into the Ajax apartment. They had a bed, a mattress on the floor and a desk given to them by a friend; the rest they salvaged from garbage.

“I am really a proud person,” she says. “I didn’t want to ask [for help], but at the same time I am humble enough to stand on the street corner putting my hand on somebody’s garbage so nobody else drives by and takes it.”

Her husband taught school and worked on the weekend in the paint department at Home Depot. His salary covered the rent, the bills and their vehicle insurance. Their children ate well, but, she says, “We really didn’t eat at all.”

She sent out more than 700 résumés, which resulted in four interviews and no job. She was told she was overqualified. So she started her own business – managing health care-based research. It took a year for it to take off, but finally they had enough for a down payment on their first home in Whitby.

By 2013, and ready for a change, she started another MBA. Around the same time, her daughters – Desiray, 16, and Candice, 11 – encouraged her to get involved in politics. A month after joining the Liberal Party in February, 2014, a party e-mail arrived inviting women to run.

“Do you know a woman who has great ideas … is able to contribute to the building of Canada?” she recalls. Ms. Caesar-Chavannes read it, and said: “Yeah, me.”

“The rest is history,” she says.

Vidal, who quit his job at a private college to help with the campaign, now is a stay-at-home father (they have three children now; Johnny is six years old) and is finishing his PhD in higher education leadership. She says the arrangement is the only way she can manage her two roles – MP and mother – well.

On Parliament Hill, she is one of five Liberal MPs of African, black or Caribbean descent. There was criticism that Mr. Trudeau did not put a black MP in his cabinet. She’s not bothered by this, saying the Prime Minister was “thoughtful in his use of cabinet members.”

As an MP, she says she wants to work for seniors, and on mental health and neurological strategies. She also wants people to know her story: “You’re not the only one struggling … you’re not the only one who is doing what it is … that you’re embarrassed or ashamed.”

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