Celina Caesar-Chavannes talks systemic racism, new role at Queen’s Faculty of Health Sciences

Photo courtesy of Celina Caesar-Chavannes.

Former Member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes is taking on a new role at Queen’s University to help remove barriers for aspiring Black medical students.

Queen’s University Faculty of Health had a policy against admitting Black students on the books from 1918 to 2018, enforced until 1965. The University repealed the policy and issued a formal apology in 2018, and has openly expressed a desire to reverse that policy’s legacy, the exclusion of generations of Black academics.

To assist, Caesar-Chavannes is assuming the role of Equity, Diversity and Inclusivity (EDI) Senior Advisor, part of a new initiative from Dr. Jane Philpott, Dean in the Faculty of Medicine at Queen’s University. Caesar-Chavannes and Philpott are also former parliamentary colleagues, each elected as Liberal Members of Parliament in 2015, and completing their terms as independents in 2019.

“I was communicating with Jane Philpott… and getting an understanding of the challenges that Queen’s has had in the past with their medical program, and the deliberate policies around not accepting enrollment for Black students,” Caesar-Chavannes said.

“The conversation [was] around wanting to improve the number of Black students that were in the program. For me, that was a challenge. Do I want to help recruit students into a space where, I don’t know if Queen’s addressed the cultural challenge that it would have, based on a policy that was entrenched in racism?”

From there, she said the conversation shifted towards how she could help with that culturally transformative process, and she grew excited to get on board.

“I ran a research management firm for ten years before getting into politics,” she said. “I loved the research side, I loved being able to document processes.” Caesar-Chavannes said she hopes to be able to formally document a cultural transformation at the school.

“I think most people know anecdotally that students face challenges, especially if they have different backgrounds, not just on the campus but in the community as well,” she said. “So [the goal is] to have that entrenched in more of an academic sort of exercise, so that it’s not just anecdotal, but it’s a survey, or some other way of referencing.” Her hope is then to perform a change-readiness assessment, to create a clear vision of what Queen’s could look like, and a path to get there.

“I think what I am really focused on is ensuring that the culture of the base is one that is just amenable to Black students,” she added. “Once you make it inclusive for one, you make it inclusive for all.”

One of Queen’s five Black medical students speaks out

Queen’s Faculty of Health Sciences hosted an online ceremony on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020 to mark the official opening of the Office of EDI, and the Dean’s Action Table on EDI (DAT-EDI).

Aquila Akingbade, one of five Black medical students currently enrolled at Queen’s for medicine, gave examples of questions he feels the institution is facing.

“You might be asking why that number — five — is so low,” he said. “Are Black identifying students not applying to Queen’s? Are they applying to Queen’s, but not making it to the interview stage? Do they have multiple acceptances, but choose other schools over Queen’s? How many Black students apply to Queen’s? Each of these questions have different answers and solutions.”

Akingbade said, to him, equity, diversity, inclusion are about inviting, listening and consulting members of the community when decisions are being made about them.

“To me, true EDI occurs when professors teach that some of the observed health disparities are due to racism. True EDI is achieved when we critically examine and dismantle systemic barriers to medical school for underrepresented and ethnic minorities. True EDI occurs when students of colour do not disproportionately bear the burden of advocacy work in correcting that system of disparity,” he said.

Caesar-Chavannes also spoke at the event. “This process is going to be challenging and we are going to need all hands on deck,” she said. “Some will say that others are taking their spot or cutting into their slice of the pie. I want you to remind them that this process is about baking a bigger pie.”

“This is Canada,” said Queen’s University Elder-in-Residence Wendy Phillips. “This is really our home, and I always tell people ‘What do want to happen in your home? How do you want that home to really feel?'”

Dr. Philpott explained that the faculty’s response to the current challenges includes the engagement of 150 volunteers, staff at the newly created Office of EDI, and the launch of a Faculty of Health and Sciences EDI fund.

“We are experiencing a period of unprecedented awareness about systemic racism and other forms of oppression,” Philpott wrote on her blog on Thursday, Sep. 24, 2020. “Our approach to addressing these matters must be more than notional. We need action. We need to meaningfully demonstrate our commitment to the principles of EDI in our workplace, as well as our teaching, research, and care.”

‘This doesn’t just involve Black students’

Caesar-Chavannes said students, faculty and alumni can expect “a lot of conversations and a lot of engagement,” as she looks for ways to make the University a measurably more equitable and inclusive environment for all students.

“This is not ‘Celina is going to come in and wave a magic wand and fix something,’” she said. “This is a large communications exercise that doesn’t just involve Black students. This is going to involve [everyone].” she said.

Although Queen’s medical school has been singled out for its historic policy to exclude Black students, Caesar-Chavannes said its culture is not unique “by any stretch of the imagination.”

“At least at Queen’s there was something that was blatant on the table. A lot of organization and institutions across Canada have underlying systemic racism that is not as blatant. In the context of Queen’s, there is… something really tangible here. How do we take what has been a legacy of exclusion of Black students in particular and move forward from that?” she expressed.

“Whereas I think every organization in Canada, or globally for that matter, is struggling with how to be more inclusive, more equitable, be more fair. We have a great opportunity at Queen’s to have a tangible example of a policy within an organization… and then document that transformation.”

Looking forward to ‘coming home’ to research

Ceasar-Chavannes said moving into this research role “is coming home” for her.

“I think it’s a wonderful way to allow me to use my brain again for advancing some important initiatives. I’m hoping that with this model, we can document it and have it published at the end of the process… A year or two years from now, I think for me that’s where I’d love to be.”

Considered a national thought leader on the topics of equitable organizational leadership and mental health, Ceasar-Chavannes owned an award-winning research management firm from 2005 to 2015. She served as the Member Parliament for Whitby in 2015 to 2019. Elected as a Liberal, she left the party in March 2019, citing a conflict with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after she told him she would not seek re-election. She publicly denounced Trudeau for his leadership style, and completed her parliamentary term as an independent, alongside Dr. Jane Philpott.

Samantha Butler-Hassan, Local Journalism Initiative

Samantha Butler-Hassan is a staff writer and life-long Kingston resident. She is a news junkie and mom who loves reading and exploring the community. This article has been made possible with the support of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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