New parents have enough work in a baby’s first weeks without having to represent two ridings, attend parliamentary votes, change diapers, and breastfeed between committee meetings and Commons sittings, but that’s the new world Bloc Québécois MPs Xavier Barsalou-Duval and Marilène Gill are navigating together.
The couple earned a footnote in Canadian history with the birth of their son Ulysses, making them the first pair of sitting MPs to have a baby.
“We have to triple everything,” said Mr. Barsalou-Duval (Pierre-Boucher-Les Patriotes-Verchères, Que.), with baby beds, diapers and clothes stockpiled in each riding and Ottawa.
In Ms. Gill’s Ottawa office, tucked between the couch and her desk, is yet another cot, with a mobile of little brown bears the parents say successfully quiets Ulysses down.
Typically, they’ll spend the work week in Ottawa then drive to Mr. Barsalou-Duval’s home near Montreal where Ms. Gill (Manicouagan, Que.) can grab a flight to her home in Baie-Comeau, more than 650 kilometres away, where her other two children live. Sometimes trying to keep so many places stocked gets them in trouble, like last week’s late-night drive, when they realized they had no diapers in the car or at home. They made it to a store with 15 minutes to spare.
When Ms. Gill learned they were “a first,” she said she was surprised. But, with so few women elected to Parliament she said perhaps she shouldn’t be.
“Before it couldn’t have been possible,” she said in an interview two months after giving birth to six-and-a-half pound Ulysses on Sept. 7.
He’s already living up to his storied name, the couple joked, travelling to and from Ms. Gill’s huge, far-flung riding 900 kilometres from the capital.
There’s a lot to juggle, said Mr. Barsalou-Duval, with two ridings, parliamentary files, voting, and caucus meetings.
They joke Ulysses is the 11th Bloc caucus member, although a party needs 12 elected members before it gains official status.
“I’m sure that he’s the best one to keep a secret,” Mr. Barsalou-Duval said.
They each take leadership roles in the 10-member caucus: he the house leader and she the whip. The roles are “another challenge added to all the others,” Mr. Barsalou-Duval said, but by no means an impossible task.
Making Parliament easier for young parents
The couple, together almost two years, met a few times as candidates and fell in love after being elected. Both hope their reality is proof politics and family life can coexist.
Making Parliament more family friendly has been an increasingly popular discussion, with MPs last spring asked to consider a shortened work-week, with Fridays off. But the government removed the option along with other controversial aspects of its efforts to “modernize” the House’s Standing Orders after more than 60 hours of filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee.
MPs aren’t granted parental leave, and this week the House Affairs Committee is considering the matter as well as services and facilities provided to MPs of young children. The approach varies from MP to MP. Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) has said she’ll take six weeks off when she has her baby in March, while NDP MP Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.) said she’ll take a three-month leave following the recent birth of her twins.
After a cesarean delivery, Ms. Gill was back in Ottawa two weeks later, while her partner took one week off.
“I wanted to work to show I’m not sick; it’s not a disease having a baby,” said Ms. Gill, adding it would be nice to have the option in “special situations” to vote from afar—and not just for young parents; on Monday she missed a vote because weather delayed her flight.
Video conferencing in committees would also be welcome so she could better participate, as she worries about making too much noise or disturbing meetings. That’s a suggestion also made by NDP MP Christine Moore (Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Que.), who gave birth to her daughter Daphnée during the 2015 federal election campaign and has since had another child while working as an MP.
But one of the biggest barriers is the 18-month-age limit at the Hill’s daycare. While they’re lucky they can bring the baby to work, Mr. Barsalou-Duval said he doesn’t see the logic in the age restriction. The daycare also closes at 6 p.m. and does not accept children on a part-time basis.
“I’m expecting more from the House than what’s given right now,” he said, noting that with both their families so far away, getting babysitting help isn’t an option.
Ms. Gill said she tries not to think about what will happen when Ulysses turns two, and she can’t take the baby on the airplane for free. It costs about $1,300 for roundtrip airfare to her riding and MPs are limited to six free trips for family members. She usually drives the 900 kilometres, but said with a child flying is easiest.
Coming to work in the Commons as young parents has been a bit of an adjustment for both, said Mr. Barsalou-Duval.
“But I won’t hide it’s a bigger adjustment because I don’t have to—”
“Breastfeed?” interjected Ms. Gill, laughing, as Ulysses quietly fed under a blanket. Last week she breastfed for the first time in the House. She felt comfortable but said it helps that she sits in the back row.
It can be “very difficult” though, because the Bloc Québécois doesn’t have the same space allocated to the Liberals, NDP, or Conservatives in Centre Block and it can be difficult to find a free seat in common areas.
“Sometimes you see a couch that is there but you can’t have it … I have to stand up in the antechamber,” she said. “I find it a little aberrant—shocking—because I’m human, too, and there is a baby, so why not have a place?”
The couple’s offices are both in Confederation Building but on separate floors, and while they’re hopeful they can eventually move next door to each other, they aren’t sure it will happen.
“We don’t think we will have the openness with the other parties,” said Mr. Barsalou-Duval, noting to move offices requires some discussion with other party whips to negotiate room allocations.
Breaking doors open for other women
Ms. Gill sees their young family as a part of the shifting face of Parliament, which has included a number of recent family firsts: Ms. Gould will be the first ever federal cabinet minister to give birth while in that job and new mother of twins Ms. Ashton became the first federal leadership candidate to contend while pregnant.
Politicians can’t wait for Parliament to come up with the answers and accommodations to make it easier for young parents—and particularly women—to enter politics, she said.
“It’s like opening doors,” she said, noting while the average age of MPs is 51, the presence of younger politicians has helped reveal how inaccessible Parliament can be for women of childbearing age.
“Will I have a daycare or not? Where will he go to school? Will it cost for me to take him on the plane? We have to do it and then we’re going to make things change.”
Later, Ms. Gill edits that sentiment: the point isn’t to only open doors for other women “but break the doors also.”
“I didn’t have a baby because I wanted to show something… Maybe it’s complicated but I would be proud to show that we have to do this. If we want to have more, or if we want to be equal or if we want to show women don’t have to wait until they’re 55 before entering politics, we have to do it even though we don’t have all the facilities.”
The Hill Times
Pregnancy and politics: firsts and notables
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould will be the first-ever federal cabinet minister to give birth while in that job.
Sheila Copps was the first sitting MP to give birth in 1987.
Andy Scott’s wife gave birth on Jan. 23, 2006, while he was minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, which may have been one of the first examples of a federal cabinet minister becoming a new parent while in cabinet. It’s hard to tell, though, given that data is spotty and the subject is a personal one some politicians may not divulge.
Niki Ashton was the first woman to run for the leadership of a federal political party (the NDP) while pregnant.
Pauline Marois was the first woman in Canadian history to give birth while serving as a provincial cabinet minister, according to the Vancouver Courier. She later became Quebec’s first female premier.
Christy Clark followed Ms. Marois’s footsteps, according to the Courier, becoming the second provincial cabinet minister to give birth, and also later became the first female elected premier of her province (British Columbia).
Laurel Broten gave birth to twins while she was a cabinet minister in Dalton McGuinty’s Liberal government in Ontario and was back in the office weeks later.
—Sources: Library of Parliament, the Vancouver Courier, National Post, The Hill Times archives