Celina Caesar-Chavannes Is Not Here for Hair-Shaming and Discrimination
Celina Caesar-Chavannes has long had an activist spirit: In high school, during the Rodney King riots, she got permission to protest on school grounds. "I stood by the road with signs like honk for justice" she says. She studied politics while getting her MBA and often wondered what it would be like to run for office herself. At age 40, after registering as a Liberal, Caesar-Chavannes (then managing her own consulting company) received an email from her new party that spurred her to find out. "It said something like, 'Do you know a strong woman who can put forward ideas to help shape the future of Canada?' I thought, Yeah, me. I'm your girl. It was so serendipitous; it was a calling."
Elected to Parliament representing the district of Whitby in 2015, Caesar-Chavannes relished having a role that gave her access to the public's ear; last year she knew precisely which issue she wanted to draw attention to. "I read about a black girl being removed from class in Toronto because her hair was too poufy, and women disciplined at work because their braids weren't 'appropriate' for the office," she says. "Then I read a story about two black girls in Massachusetts who were threatened with suspension because of their braids. I found it all so asinine, it just blew my mind. Friends were sharing similar stories, and I kept thinking, This is nuts. I couldn't just stay silent."
Caesar-Chavannes crafted a statement, not worrying about blowback: "I knew I'd earned my colleagues' respect—I know I'm good at what I do." On September 20, 2017, she gave a barn-burning speech to Parliament about style-based discrimination and had her own hair braided for the occasion. A video of the speech went viral and inspired thousands of admiring comments, emails, likes, and heart emojis from China to Kenya and beyond.
"The email that most surprised me was from a self-described 'bald white 72-year-old man' who shared the video with all the females in his family," she says. "He probably lived a very different life from mine, but he was touched. That tickled me." Turns out Caesar-Chavannes was changed by the speech, too: "I'd had my hair straightened for about 25 years," she says. "But since then, I keep it natural. It's the rebirth of Celina."