For some, hearing this statement coming from someone might make you think, “Wow! Who do you think you are?” For me, hearing a statement like this from this particular Sister Queen made sense. After all, she is Celina Caesar-Chavannes
I want to welcome you back to our Women History Month Series. This month, we are taking the time to honour African women living in the Diaspora, women who have long been breaking boundaries, using their passions and motivation to pull their people up, and call people out.
In our pursuit to highlight these trailblazers, the Beloved team have chosen a Queen from the past, present, and future to punctuate the role that African women have played in the building of our communities in the Western world. Last week, we were introduced to a past heroine whose vision brought her to the highest ranks of the American political system, and this week, we honour our present political leader, the ravishing, outspoken Celina Caesar-Chavannes.
Celina is a woman who when she is in a room, you feel her energy before you actually even see her. You may know her as an equity and inclusion leadership consultant, and a former Member of Parliament who served as the parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and to the Minister of International Development et la Francophonie.
Long before entering politics, Celina successfully launched an award-winning research management firm, with a particular focus on neurological conditions. This lined her up to be awarded with the 2007 Black Business and Professional Association’s Harry Jerome Young Entrepreneur Award, as well as the Toronto Board of Trade’s Business Entrepreneur of the Year in 2012.
She was awarded the Champion of Mental Health Parliamentarian Award in 2017, for her mental health advocacy by the Canadian Alliance on Mental Illness and Mental Health. In the same year she was also named one of the Global 100 Under 40 Most Influential People of African Descent (Politics & Governance), and the Black Parliamentarian of the Year.
During her time in Parliament, is when the world began to see that this woman would not be undermined, nor spoken down to. As the only Afro-Caribbean woman in Parliament at the time, she showed women in the diaspora how to unapologetically be who they are, regardless of how others looked at her, or what was said to her. She is famously known for wearing her hair in braids, in a show of solidarity with women and girls who had been fired from their jobs or kicked out of school for wearing their natural hair; standing up to Prime Minister Trudeau, and in 2019 walking away from the Liberal Party, to become an independent.
It is no wonder that her book “Can You Hear Me Now,” is quickly becoming a best seller. The book reveals a dramatic contrast between her bold, strong public persona, and the young girl who secretly was battling pain and trauma. The book takes you inside the mind of Celina, exposing the thoughts of an introspective child, and how she views her childhood, now that she is an adult.
The book has everything: drama, conflict, romance, passion, all written during critical times in her life when she was dealing with strong emotions, and her only therapy was writing everything down. It brought her to a point where she had to decide, did she want to write a book that hurt, or did she want a book that healed. She choose to write a book that healed, and this meant that she had to ask herself some serious questions:
- Where did I make mistakes?
- How was I part of the breakdown?
- What lessons can I learn from what I have been through?
I have personally always appreciated her strength, so when I was asked to interview her for the Beloved Women History Month Series, I knew that I was in for a treat.
For those who have watched the Beloved Video, you will remember that her family was one the families featured, and I was curious as to how she had become involved in the project.
“What does beloved mean to you?” I queried?
“When I hear beloved,” she began, “I think of Prince. I went back to the scene at his concert in 2011. He was doing his coming to America tour, and I flew down to New Jersey. Actually, the only reason I was able to go to the concert was because my grandmother was sick. I flew down to Grenada to pick her up, and on the way back we missed our connecting flight to Toronto and had to spend a night in New York. While there, I saw an ad for Prince’s concert. I called my husband, and we ended up with V.I.P. tickets for a the concert. At the beginning of his set, he kept repeating the words, ‘Dearly Beloved.’ He would stop, and then say it again. All I can remember feeling is pure, unadulterated joy. I could check off one item on my bucket list.
Everything about the word beloved reminds me about my grandmother. The campaign has so much meaning. beyond people that I love.”
At the end of the Beloved Video is a picture of Celina’s family with her grandmother. This was a surprise to her, so I wanted to hear how she felt about it.
“That is the only picture that we have with our whole family and Gramsie. There isn’t any other picture. The picture was taken about 13 years ago, so to see her being honoured that way was remarkable. It was so unexpected. It was more
than beautiful. It was one of those moments that catches you off guard and takes your breath away.
The day that we went to do the photo shoot, we told Gramsie to stay home. She said she was coming to the photo shoot. I tried to convince her, but she was determined to go. It was a Sunday, so she put on her Sunday hat. Mark was so gracious and generous with her. There is so much going on with this campaign. I wish I could put it into words. It includes the only full family picture with Gramsie, and it is something that I will cherish for the rest of my life.”
Anyone who knows Celina personally can tell you that she is an avid art collector. Some of her prized collection items include pieces from Sandra Brewster’s - Smith Collection, and Melissa Falconer and Mark Stoddart. I was curious about her pieces, and we had a chance to chat about them.
When I saw Sandra Brewster – Smith’s Collection, on Facebook, I was like wow! This is amazing. Who is this? I tracked her down, and found out that she went to school with my husband. I asked to buy one of her paintings. She told me that one was out of circulation, so I asked her, ‘Do you know who I am?’ She was like, ‘I don’t care.’ Eventually we wore her down, and I am the proud owner of her artwork.”
I had to chuckle. There was Celina, the woman we had all grown to love.
“One of my favourite pieces was painted by the talented Melissa Falconer. When I was in Parliament, I put her piece in my office. It was hilarious. When you walked into my office, behind me was a picture of one of the greatest hip-hop artists of our time, Biggie Smalls.
I also happen to be the proud owner of the last two pieces that Mark Stoddart painted. I invest into Black art because you hear this term “struggling artists", and I think to myself, if white artists are struggling, how hard must it be for Black artists?”
“I know you are a self-assured, and self-motivated woman Celina, but what makes you unbossed, and unbought?”
“Funny enough Simone,” she answered. “I am wearing that shirt right now. I wasn’t always this way. I grew into it. People are always putting a microphone in my face, so I thought to myself, shouldn’t I say something constructive that represents my community? Who made up these rules that we have to be gentle?
I feel sorry for my husband. He is 100% there to protect. He is my voice of reason, during times when I can be emotional. Yes, I am aware that I am going to get hurt. Yes, I am going to get blowback, but I don’t care as long as I am on the right side of history.”
I had heard about a special collaboration that Mark Stoddart was doing with Celina. He was personalizing the title of her book “CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?” on a limited edition t-shirt. I was curious as to how that came about, and how she felt about it.
“Mark came over and threw a bag at me. I promptly told him to take it back and hand it to me properly,” she laughs, and continues. “The reaction to my book was amazing. I didn’t think people would get it. I didn’t think black women would get it, but they did. I wanted to strip away the façade. I wanted to put out a book that was real. I want people to know about my achievements, but also see the blood, sweat, and tears. I wrote it to heal. I wanted for people to identify with the pains and struggles. You are not alone. We can heal through this process together.
I put on the shirt, took a selfie, and posted it online. People went off. I wear his shirt with intention. He celebrates black women with such a passion, and this is why I support him.”
Some of the proceeds from the collaboration book and t-shirt campaign will be going to Operation BlackVote, as well as Nia’s Centre for the Arts.
“We need to decide what we are going to do with our money. My community has supported me through everything, and it only makes sense to put money back into my community.”
When I came off the phone, I felt energized. This is what happens when you speak with empowered women, that energy is contagious. Such an honour to speak with Celina, and I encourage you all to take some time to learn more about our Beloved one, Celina Caesar-Chavannes. Pick up her book “Can You Hear Me Now,” which can be found at: A Different Booklist, Barnes & Noble, Hudson Booksellers, Walmart, Target, Amazon, IndieBound, Bookshop.org, and Books a Million.
Simone Jennifer Smith