Two MPs with young children are applauding a new House committee report that recommends the House not count parental leave as absence, and formalize that infants are allowed in the House Chamber.
Two MPs who are mothers of babies, NDP MP Christine Moore (Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Que.) and Bloc Québécois MP Marilène Gill (Manicouagan, Que.), agreed with the recommendations, but both said there’s more work to do.
The report, tabled late last month by the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, recommends that the government House leader consider introducing legislation to change the Parliament of Canada Act to add that pregnancy and parental leave not count as an absence from the House.
As it is, Parliamentarians aren’t covered under employment insurance, so if new parents don’t want to see their pay affected, they’d typically have to come back after 21 days off in order not to be docked pay.
The committee also recommended the Board of Internal Economy begin discussions with the Hill daycare centre “to see whether they are able to offer flexible hours and accept newborns.” The daycare currently doesn’t take children under 18 months and closes at 6 p.m. The House also has a nanny service available to MPs in need of after-hours care.
And the committee said the powerful House Board of Internal Economy should keep providing a family room for MPs with infants near the House Chamber, including after expected renovations, and provide one in the renovated West Block too, as well as consider a play area in the courtyard in Centre Block behind the opposition lobby.
The Conservative committee members tabled a supplementary report to the Liberal-dominated committee document.
Committee Conservatives agreed overall with the recommendations, but cautioned that Parliament should be careful with taxpayer money, and they didn’t agree with changing the Standing Orders. Conservative MP John Nater (Perth-Wellington, Ont.), a father of young children, said Conservatives suggested MPs should have a parental leave package comparable to other Canadians.
He said more details on the policy need to be drafted before his party can take a firm stance. He acknowledged the amount of time, as well as the fact MPs will be working during the leave, will have an impact on the compensation.
“We’re politicians, regardless of whether we’re in Ottawa or not, so there is a recognition when we’re in our ridings we are still working, whether we’re on parental leave or not,” he said.
The report’s intent was similar to a 2016 report from the committee recommending the House develop more flexible childcare solutions for members.
Making Parliament more family-friendly has become a focus of conversation in the House recently, with MPs last spring asked to consider a shortened work-week, with Fridays off. After more than 60 hours of filibuster at the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, that plan was scrapped.
In recent years, with more younger women filling the seats of the Commons, the issue has become a constant topic of conversation. Niki Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.) this year became the first MP to run for the leadership of a federal party while pregnant, and Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould (Burlington, Ont.) is set to become the first sitting cabinet minister to give birth. She is due in March and plans to take a six-week leave. Ms. Gill and partner Xavier Barsalou-Duval (Pierre Boucher-Les Patriotes-Verchères, Que.) this fall became the first pair of sitting MPs to have a baby together.
Sabrina Atwal, a spokesperson for House Leader Bardish Chagger, said in an emailed statement the committee report is a “positive development.”
“Our government has always said we are committed to modernizing the House of Commons and making it a place that is reflective of Canada,” she said, adding Parliament should be “a place where Canadians from all walks of life can participate fully.”
The committee recommended that if an MP is taking parental or pregnancy leave, Parliament consider not penalizing them for missing more than 21 sitting days by docking pay $120 a day. In essence, days they are not in the House due to parental leave would not be counted as absences.
But Canadians without additional work parental benefits rely on employment insurance, which only pays them 55 per cent of their income, up to a maximum of $543 per week. For MPs to be left with their full pay intact isn’t fair to those Canadians they serve who get less, the Conservative supplementary report argued.
“The proposed amendment to the Parliament of Canada Act would result in 100 per cent income protection for Members of Parliament on leave,” it read. “The official opposition recommends…that consideration be given to ensuring that politicians are not being put into a better position than their constituents.”
The Conservatives say the Board of Internal Economy should “take up consideration of the recommendations in this report…in a cost-neutral manner.”
Ms. Moore took three weeks of sick leave after giving birth to Laurence, seven months, but did not take leave for Daphnée, who is two years old, because of when she was born. She called the election day plan “E-Day” but her delivery plans “D-Day.”
“You manage, I was doing the job for more than four years before I became a mom for the first time,” she said, adding she has great staff.
Although Ms. Moore acknowledges the Conservatives’ point, she noted MPs have a unique job. You wouldn’t call a nurse with patient questions while she is on maternity leave, said Ms. Moore, but working while on maternity leave as an MP is a reality.
“[An MP] will be in contact with her caucus by email, taking [positions] on different issues, so she will continue to work,” she said. “Her presence will just not be mandatory in Ottawa; that’s the difference.”
Mr. Nater echoed that MPs have unique circumstances, and said the policy should also be tied to an existing structure, such as the federal public service.
“That discussion hasn’t happened yet, so that’s why we’re not dissenting from the proposal, just a belief that we should be looking into the ramification of the proposals being made,” he said.
The report suggests changing the Standing Orders that only allow Parliamentarians and House officers on the floor of the Chamber. Instead of House Speakers turning “a blind eye,” the report says, to the presence of “strangers,” Standing Order 14 should be rewritten to allow for babies being cared for by MPs.
It builds off a 2012 clarification made by then-House Speaker Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) when former NDP MP Sana Hassainia brought her baby into the House. The standard practice now is for the Speaker to permit babies accompanying MPs in the House, but the committee says this should be formalized.
Conservative committee members, however, do not think the Standing Orders needed to be changed, as they said there is a strong precedent that infants are allowed in the Chamber. Mr. Nater said the system used now has been working, with MPs and the Speaker using their good judgment.
“I don’t think going through the process of formalizing it…does anyone any benefit,” he said. “I think the joy of a parliamentary system is that it is flexible; it is based on precedent.”
Ms. Moore said she thinks the Standing Orders should be changed to ensure MPs do not need to fight for this right in the future.
MPs are allowed 64 travel points per fiscal year, mainly used to travel back and forth to ridings, but MPs can get special exceptions.
That hasn’t taken into account support needed for those with young children, but the report notes the House of Commons chief human resources officer can make exceptions. Members should be educated on this option, the report said.
Mr. Nater said the Conservatives support flexibility in the travel point system.
“No one wants to choose which child they bring with them based on Transport Canada regulations,” he said, referring to a rule that stipulates each child under two must be accompanied by an adult on a plane. One adult may not care for more than one baby.
The committee also recommends the House administration examine if an MP’s children can be covered to travel to Ottawa for visits, but not draw from the Member’s points.
Ms. Gill, who was back to work in Ottawa two weeks after her son Ulysse’s birth, is especially excited about the prospect of more space for young parents.
The Board of Internal Economy could approve the creation of a secure play area close to the Chamber as part of the years-long Centre Block renovation to begin next year, the report said. The committee suggested a courtyard behind the opposition lobby as an option.
“There is a room right now in Centre Block, but it’s only for, let’s say, one family because there’s one chair and it’s a small place,” said Ms. Gill, adding it’s been tough to find space to breastfeed.
While the report addressed a number of issues “maybe it’s not a complete picture,” Ms. Gill said.
In her case, it’s not that she wants more time off; she’d like the flexibility to be able to vote remotely, especially in the few weeks after giving birth.
“I want to be in the Commons…I don’t want to miss a single vote,” she said, adding while it’s possible to pair votes, “it’s not the same thing as voting.”
The Hill Times