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Making Parliament work for parents

The Ottawa Citizen by Nancy Peckford February 12 2012

The babies in the House controversy on Parliament Hill earlier this week may look like a woman’s issue, but just because men can’t nurse their babies doesn’t mean that male MPs wouldn’t also benefit from a few family-friendly policies in their workplace.

In fact, the incident involving MP Sana Hassainia and her three-month-old infant raises the question of what we do with any elected representative who is actively caring for an infant while serving a term in office. While the challenge often arises because a woman is nursing her infant, Hassainia’s dilemma this past week isn’t exclusive to her gender. As new fathers are increasingly encouraged to be actively involved in those first few months of their newborn’s lives, many younger male MPs are likely paying careful attention.

MPs – like nearly all elected officials – can’t take parental leave when they have a child. But there’s no reason that they can’t fulfil their duties – as long as they have the support of staff, family and, here comes the real kicker, Parliament itself.

The issue has never been more important: the cohort of MPs under the age of 40 jumped significantly in the past election. There are currently 39 male MPs under the age of 40 (up from 20 in the last Parliament), and 20 female MPs (up from five). Hassainia is unlikely to be the only MP, male or female, to become a new parent during this 41st Parliament.

Current Ontario MPP Lisa MacLeod came up against similar issues when she was elected in 2006 (her daughter was one year old). Immediately noticing that the Ontario legislature’s sitting hours went late into the evenings, she persuaded her colleagues to change what had been an outdated tradition and unnecessary sacrifice. No one’s complained since.

At the federal level, there has been less progress. Former MP and minister Belinda Stronach, a single parent, raised the oftenoverlooked issue of work/life balance for MPs once she left office. She asked if Parliament could better leverage the technological revolution to accommodate children and family.

Is it really necessary to be physically present in the House for every vote? Couldn’t committee meetings sometimes be conducted virtually to allow for longer constituency visits and lessgruelling travel schedules?

Those questions have remained unaddressed since the first female MP, Agnes Macphail, arrived on the Hill 91 years ago. And while many male MPs have no doubt struggled with having to sacrifice important family time, the value of having more women in the House is that we may finally be more compelled to confront these questions head-on.

I expect many MPs, past and current, already have some of the answers. Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq arrived in Ottawa in 2008 with an infant in tow and was appointed to cabinet shortly thereafter. Minister Lisa Raitt was the mother of two small boys when first elected to the House. Sheila Copps, the first sitting MP to give birth while in office, and Michelle Dockrill, helped to lead the way as mothers and MPs in the late ’80s and ’90s.

As executive director of the national organization Equal Voice, I was confronted with the dilemma of being invited to make a parliamentary committee appearance when my second daughter was just eight weeks old. Not sure about the rules and wanting to do what was best for both me and my daughter, I agreed to present – with some trepidation – and opted to bring my daughter and a caregiver with me.

A father of four young children himself, Speaker Andrew Scheer might be more motivated than his predecessor to make addressing these issues a priority. He’s wellpositioned to convene a group of MPs charged with the task of proposing some family-friendly initiatives. In addition to the ideas offered by Belinda Stronach, they might also consider:

A family room for MPs who have custody of their infants for short periods in the House of Commons. Nursing/feeding chairs and diaper-changing facilities are fairly standard these days in many public institutions;

A qualified caregiver on standby for crucial periods of House business when it’s clear that an MP may have custody of an infant;

Clustering committee meet-ings over three days to allow MPs an extra day in their ridings and with their families.

As a national multi-partisan organization committed to the election of more women at all levels of government, Equal Voice is confident that the adoption of some of these proposals would demonstrate to more women that they are welcome and wanted in the House, even during the child-bearing years.

And for an institution that Canadians increasingly deem irrelevant, what better issue is there to underscore that MPs are real people who struggle with one of the same issues confronting most Canadians: how to keep – let alone excel at – your job while being the best parent you can be.

Nancy Peckford is the executive director of Equal Voice, the mother of two children, and conspicuously pregnant with a third, due within the month.