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Canada Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes says she was met with ‘hostility, anger’ in private Trudeau talks

Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 25, 2018.

Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes says she was met with hostility and anger from Justin Trudeau when she told him she was leaving politics, prompting her to speak out about the Prime Minister’s behaviour.

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes sent out a tweet earlier this week after Mr. Trudeau spoke about his leadership style during a news conference to address allegations of political interference between his office and former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould on SNC-Lavalin.

“I did come to you recently. Twice. Remember your reactions?” wrote Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, who worked closely with Mr. Trudeau as his parliamentary secretary from December, 2015, to January, 2017.

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Speaking for the first time in an interview with The Globe and Mail about what she meant by her post, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes outlined a series of interactions with Mr. Trudeau in recent weeks, including one witnessed by members of the House, that she says left her feeling unsupported. She turned to social media after Mr. Trudeau stated that real leadership is about listening, showing compassion and fostering an environment in which caucus is comfortable coming to him with concerns. Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, who has repeatedly offered public support for Ms. Wilson-Raybould, said she felt he did not show those qualities in their personal discussions in recent weeks.

In response to detailed questions from The Globe, Matt Pascuzzo, a spokesman for the Prime Minister’s Office, said, “The Prime Minister has deep respect for Celina Caesar-Chavannes. There’s no question the conversations in February were emotional, but there was absolutely no hostility. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, he is committed to fostering an environment where ministers, caucus, and staff feel comfortable approaching him when they have concerns or disagreements – that happened here.”

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes’ version of events was publicly backed by her husband, Vidal Chavannes, in a social media post on Saturday.

“Celina did not get to where she is because she is not strategic or brilliant. She is both. She never will need the PM or the PMO or me or anybody else to validate her version of the story, or to understand that ‘emotional’ or ‘yelling’ can be ‘interpreted differently.’ She is fearless,” he wrote.

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, a first-term MP from the Toronto area, said she had told Mr. Trudeau in a phone call on Feb. 12 that she would be announcing her decision not to run again in the October election. She said Mr. Trudeau told her to wait, because Ms. Wilson-Raybould had quit cabinet that day. She felt that he was worried about “the optics of having two women of colour leaving,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said.

A source with the PMO who was not authorized to discuss details on the record said Mr. Trudeau was concerned that her decision would be associated with the SNC-Lavalin affair, but did not raise any concerns about race.

Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she had told him that she hoped he could one day understand the impact that political life has had on her family. She said threats to her safety have been made against her in the past.

“He was yelling. He was yelling that I didn’t appreciate him, that he’d given me so much,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said.

She said she yelled back at him, and Mr. Trudeau eventually apologized. She said she agreed to his request the next day to hold off on making her announcement until early March.

In a statement posted to Twitter on Saturday, Mr. Chavannes said he was in the room on the evening of Feb. 12, when his wife spoke to Mr. Trudeau on speaker phone.

“What I heard from that call was misplaced anger and frustration, likely due to the circumstances of the day,” Mr. Chavannes wrote.

“Everything that Celina detailed, related to that call, is true. Everything. On February 13th, Celina didn’t pen an op-ed about the experience. Instead, she acquiesced to the Prime Minister’s request to delay her announcement and moved on.”

A week later after a caucus meeting, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said she had approached Mr. Trudeau to talk about their previous interaction.

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“I went to him, I said, ‘Look I know our last conversation wasn’t the greatest but …,’ and at that point I stopped talking because I realized he was angry,” she said.

“Again, I was met with hostility. This stare-down … then him stomping out of the room without a word.”

The PMO said the two posed for a photo together and their interaction was brief.

She said Mr. Trudeau had apologized again later that day, prior to a vote on a Conservative motion in the House of Commons. Opposition MPs have told The Globe she appeared visibly upset.

“He came back in and said ‘I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that,'" she said. “I was upset and I left. I was angry. I was angry, because this guy holds a lot of power and in the first conversation I asked him to consider the impact on my family, and he didn’t do that.”

She said she had decided to share her experience with Mr. Trudeau because her responsibility is to represent the 130,000 constituents in her Toronto-area riding of Whitby, who she says expect her to act with integrity and civility. She said she still considers herself a Liberal and will continue to support the party. She was first elected in 2015 and became Mr. Trudeau’s parliamentary secretary, representing him in the Commons when he was absent. She later moved to the same role in international development before stepping down at the end of August.

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“I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid and then sign my name in blood to this party-politics thing. Maybe politics is not for me because I clearly don’t follow what the handbook says I’m supposed to do,” she said.

“I hope that when we talk about changing politics, we do it from a foundation of not everybody who is outside of your red, blue, or orange structure is the enemy, and not everything within the red, blue or orange has to be exactly the way you want it to be.”

Speaking at a teachers’ conference in Ottawa on Saturday, Mr. Trudeau was asked to respond to concerns about whether “recent events” involving several women in his caucus call into question his dedication to promoting women’s rights.

Mr. Trudeau said he has faced a tough number of weeks involving members of his team who have experienced “some real differences of perspective and opinion.”

“I regret that it has happened this way and it’s certainly something that we’re learning a lot about,” he said.

“I’m rethinking some of the processes of how we support cabinet and caucus members, how we function as an office. I’m getting outside advice that because internal disagreements like this need to be dealt with in a better way.”

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He also said he hopes these events will not distract or detract from the work his government has been doing.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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