Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes has been the talk of Durham Region politics since Justin Trudeau paid a visit to her campaign during last fall’s federal election.
Her popularity and the fact the pair clicked made it no surprise when Trudeau reached out to Caesar-Chavannes to offer her the position of Parliamentary Secretary on his new team in Ottawa come December.
While in the new position, she continues to represent the riding of Whitby in the House of Commons with pride.
Whitby has a long history of being a Conservative riding. The late Minister of Finance Jim Flaherty sat in office as MP from January of 2006 until his death in April of 2014.
In the resulting byelection, Caesar-Chavannes came in second to Conservative Pat Perkins. But in last fall’s general election, she won the Whitby seat for Trudeau’s Liberals, this time topping Perkins.
Caesar-Chavannes knew that in order to resonate with the Conservative members of the community, she’d have to do things a little differently.
“Having respectful dialogue is important to me,” she says.
“So, I would be at the doorstep of someone who’s Conservative and they’d say ‘Oh Celina, I don’t agree with this and this’, OK well let’s talk about it. Chances are we would agree to disagree but at least then they know that, if I did win, that they have someone in Ottawa who is reasonable and they could chat with.”
It is an ideal Caesar-Chavannes has stayed true to as she has taken on more political responsibility in the past months.
Believe it or not, the political world is a new scene for her.
“About two years ago at this time, April, I was just kind of figuring out how to become a candidate,” she says.
“First time ever. Hated politics, don’t have any politics in my background, never took a poli-sci course. In fact, the summer of 2014 my daughter was taking Grade 10 civics. She was bringing home her notes and I was being tutored on the basic politics.”
Caesar-Chavannes partly credits the political interest of her two daughters for her involvement. “My 16-year-old, Desiray, in particular, she does model Parliament and mock UN (United Nations).
My 11-year-old, Candice, she’s an Earth Rangers ambassador, so of course she’s very environmentally-focused and so they were like ‘you know, you got to do something mom.’”
When Trudeau became the new face of the Liberal party, Caesar-Chavannes was able to identify with him immediately, sensing an “energy in the party” that drew her in. “I thought OK, well let me just try it out and the rest is history.”
Growing up, she wanted to be a neuroscientist. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology.
After which, she earned an MBA in health-care management as well as an executive MBA.
“I started my research company,” says Caesar-Chavannes, “it was a health-care-based research management firm. So I still focused in on the neuroscience space, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s you name it.”
She focused on the firm, ReSolve Research Solutions, until December, 2013.
“I can actually remember, I was doing my executive MBA, I was sitting at a table with the 19 women in the class and I just said to them ‘What if I ran?’ and that just sparked it.”
Having no experience in the world of politics seems like it could be a major setback, but Caeser-Chavannes wasn’t going to back down after the challenge of her first loss.
“At first, I think during the byelection it really shook my confidence,” Caesar-Chavannes says. “I didn’t know people were talking about me. My confidence was blown.”
Instead of letting the loss get to her, she decided to apply the same tactics she’s learned through her firm. “It came to the general [election] and I was like ‘look, I’m going to stick to what I know and that’s business.’ I’m not jaded by politics.”
In spite of everything, Caesar-Chavannes says her main goal is still to do “the best that I can for the people of Whitby. Justin is not my boss. The people of Whitby are my boss. The Parliamentary Secretary job is secondary. I feel like if I do a good job, the people of Whitby might hire me again.”
Caesar-Chavannes says the balancing of MP, Parliamentary Secretary and being a mom is something she’s asked about a lot “and so I say what I said to my daughter a couple years ago. She said ‘mommy, how do you balance everything?’ and I said ‘Desiray, when things are unbalanced how much percentage do you give each one?’ and she said ‘50/50’.
“I told her that’s not fair to you, and that’s not fair to my job. When I’m at home, I tilt the scale so people are getting 100 per cent when I’m wherever I am.”
Caesar-Chavannes might be too fresh on the scene to be thinking about her legacy, but she admires the style of one of her predecessors.
“I could tell that people were really loyal to Jim Flaherty. I would want to be able to work hard enough that people be loyal to me.
Overall, Caesar-Chavannes says she wants to be remembered as “somebody who just did the little things really well. Someone who was just cool, just Celina. I want them to remember me as just Celina.”