Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has one set of rules for dissenting female MPs who suffer the consequences if they take a stand on their principles, and another for white male MPs who get away without facing any consequences, says outspoken former Black Liberal MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes who left the Liberal caucus and didn’t run in the last election after disagreeing with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin scandal, among numerous other issues.
Prime Minister Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) PMO communications office did not respond to repeated comment requests for this article.
But in a telephone interview with The Hill Times, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, who represented the Ontario riding of Whitby from 2015 to 2019 and who is promoting her upcoming book, Can You Hear Me Now? How I Found My Voice and Learned to Live with Passion and Purpose, published by Penguin Random House Canada, said that by the time SNC-Lavalin controversy came along, she had already made up her mind not to seek re-election in 2019.
However, she said the way the prime minister and his top staffers treated then-cabinet ministers Jody Wilson-Raybould (Vancouver Granville, B.C.) and Jane Philpott disappointed her even more in the government.
She said the prime minister had built his brand on inclusion, diversity, and promises to do politics “differently,” and after winning the 2015 election described his government as “feminist.” But in reality, she said, nothing much had changed.
The list of Ms. Caesar-Chavannes’ disappointments is long, including not having the liberty to do things she wanted to do as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, the government’s failure to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, and the government’s failure to make more investments in Canada’s Black community. Personally, she said it took weeks before the prime minister publicly expressed his support for her in the well-known and divisive Twitter brawl she had in 2018 with People’s Party Leader Maxime Bernier over identity politics.
“In a feminist government, throwing Jodi Wilson-Raybould and Jane Philpott under the bus, I didn’t appreciate that, especially at a time when we’re saying that we believe in women,” said Ms. Caesar-Chavannes. “You believe in them when it’s convenient and you leave them when it’s not. So there were just a number of different instances that just didn’t sit right with me and the principles that I hold dear, and I wanted to make sure that I was able to look at myself in the mirror the next day.”
Like Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith (Beaches-East York, Ont.) is also a maverick MP who has been taking independent positions and voting against his government whenever he disagreed with his own party’s policy positions. When the two-term MP takes independent positions, he never shies away from putting out his reasons of disagreement publicly.
According to research conducted by Jean-François Godbout, a professor of political science at the University of Montreal, Mr. Erskine-Smith voted 37 times against his government in the last Parliament. Of all the 338 MPs, he had opposed his party the most. Overall, Mr. Erskine voted about 97 per cent of the time with his government.
The second most maverick MP in the last Parliament, according to Prof. Godbout, was Manitoba Liberal MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette who voted against his government 21 times. He lost his seat in the last election.
Taking independent positions could be the reason Mr. Erskine-Smith has never been a cabinet minister, a parliamentary secretary or a House committee chair. Being a maverick MP is seen as a career-limiting choice for MPs in Ottawa because no prime minister—Liberal or Conservative—gives high-profile positions to maverick caucus members. In any government, dissenting MPs are not regarded as team players. Mr. Erskine-Smith, however, has served on several committees, including Public Safety and National Security; Access to Information, Privacy and Ethics; and now he’s a member of the House Industry, Science and Technology Committee. He’s never been thrown out of caucus, nor quit caucus for any disagreement with his party’s leadership.
When asked why Mr. Erskine-Smith is able to continue serving in the caucus without being expelled, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said: “One would have to infer that he has more of a leeway. I mean, he’s a man, he’s a white man. And, he is still in caucus, although many times he’s voted against the government,” she said. “He’s criticized the government publicly, outside in media as well. So one would have to infer that there are some privileges that are afforded to some and some privileges that are not afforded to others.”
When reminded that Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott were senior cabinet ministers and because of the principle of cabinet solidarity, stakes were higher for the two female ministers while Mr. Erskine Smith is a government backbencher, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes disagreed with the distinction.
“I’m not sure what that has to do with anything, to be honest. I think, at the end of the day, what we should have been was a more cohesive team; there should be opportunities to have dissension, there should be opportunities to have these conversations. For me, even if there was a possibility of the prime minister, even acknowledging that maybe there was some pressure put on Ms. Wilson-Raybould; that wasn’t even acknowledged, even when he was doing his apology. So, there were those privileges afforded to some that were not given to others,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said.
In an emailed response to The Hill Times, Mr. Erskine-Smith said it hasn’t been an “easy” experience for him to take independent positions against the leadership, but he also denied that he’s never got into “trouble,” and did not get into details.
“I can’t speak to Celina’s experience as a parliamentary secretary to the prime minister or to the minister of international development, but I have always been a backbencher and worked hard to create space for reasonable disagreement,” said Mr. Erskine-Smith. “It hasn’t always been easy, nor have I always avoided getting into trouble.”
While she was an MP, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes served as parliamentary secretary to the prime minister for about a year from December 2015 to January 2017, and later on moved on to the position of parliamentary secretary to the international development minister where she served until August 2018. In March of last year, she decided to resign from the Liberal caucus and sit as an Independent.
During the SNC-Lavalin scandal, one of the most politically damaging controversies of Prime Minister Trudeau’s first government mandate, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes openly expressed concerns in its handling and spoke in support of then justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott. As justice minister, Ms. Wilson-Raybould fell out with the government over refusing to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to the Montreal-based international construction and engineering company SNC-Lavalin. Ms. Philpott stood in solidarity with her then-cabinet colleague. During the scandal, both had accused Mr. Trudeau and his top PMO and PCO officials of trying to pressure Ms. Wilson-Raybould to instruct the director of public prosecutions to allow to negotiate a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, in an effort to let the company avoid a criminal prosecution on bribery charges related to construction contracts in Libya.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould also said that she was moved from the Justice Department to Veterans Affairs in January of last year because she had declined to do what Mr. Trudeau and his top advisers had wanted.
Before they were kicked out of caucus, Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Ms. Philpott had already resigned from their respective cabinet positions and stated their strong concerns with their own government over defending the rule of law. They also vehemently denied allegations they were plotting to bring down Mr. Trudeau.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould was re-elected as an Independent MP in the last election, but Ms. Philpott, who represented the riding of Markham Stouffville, Ont., didn’t win as an Independent and lost to new Liberal MP Helena Jaczek.
Ms. Caesar-Chavannes had no direct role in the scandal but as a caucus colleague, she spoke out on social media and in other media interviews expressing her unhappiness and supporting her two colleagues.
In March of last year, before stepping down from the Liberal caucus, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes told The Globe and Mail that when she informed the prime minister about her plans not to run in the 2019 election, Mr. Trudeau reacted in a hostile way. She said the prime minister “yelled” at her telling the MP that she didn’t appreciate what he had given to her. She said she yelled back at the prime minister, and Mr. Trudeau then apologized. Last week, she shared more details with National Post of her conversation with the prime minister.
“The more Justin spoke, the angrier I got. The manner in which he was speaking to me took me back to my childhood, when my mother would correct me forcefully for behaviour I didn’t think was wrong,” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes told the Post. She added that she had her own “mad as hell and not going to take this anymore” moment.
“Motherf***er, who the f**k do you think you are speaking to?” Ms. Caesar-Chavannes told the prime minister and hung up, according to National Post.
According to the paper, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes intended to make her decision public the same day Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from cabinet. Mr. Trudeau did not want to see two high-profile women of colour leave the same day and asked to delay the announcement.
In a second meeting with Mr. Trudeau after a regular weekly caucus meeting, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said Mr. Trudeau stared her down, but apologized again.
When asked what the title of her books means and who it’s directed at, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes said: “Just about everybody. Often, we’re silenced, as women, and again, as people of colour. Now that I’m able to find my voice and to use it for speaking up on a lot of different issues. It really is to speak to, to anybody who’s tried to find their voice and doesn’t know where to start. And it’s to a lot of different individuals who are probably trying to navigate those spaces where we don’t often see people and people of colour.”
Meanwhile, Ms. Caesar-Chavannes, who is now doing consulting work and is working with Queen’s University as a senior adviser on equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives, told The Hill Times that she still has not ruled out the possibility of returning to federal politics. She said that she’s had conversations with the NDP, Greens, and the Conservatives, but has not made up her mind. Ms. Caesar-Chavannes also declined to say if she has any plans to run in the next election.
“I’m just keeping my options open,” said Ms. Caesar-Chavannes. “I don’t know when the next election is going to be. But for now I have not made any promises to anybody that I’ll go back in because there isn’t a date, there isn’t any timing. So we’ll just see what happens.”
The Hill Times