When NDP federal leadership candidate Niki Ashton announced her pregnancy last week, the ordinary life event for one woman became a first in federal politics and a national political story.
The 34-year-old Manitoba MP, who was first elected in 2008, is also among a fairly small group of women who have started families while in federal office and is now the first woman to run for the leadership of a federal political party while pregnant.
“It is unique, but it shouldn’t be and we should get at the reasons why that it is unique so it isn’t anymore,” said Ms. Ashton (Churchill-Keewatinook Aski, Man.) in a phone interview with The Hill Times last week from the campaign trail in B.C.
Not enough young women run or are called upon to lead, said Ms. Ashton, who said those numbers—and her place as a first—highlight two gaps in Canadian politicians: gender and age.
The reality isn’t new for her party, Ms. Ashton is quick to note, adding that “it’s not by accident” three New Democrat MPs in the last three years have given birth while elected: Anne Minh-Thu Quach (Salaberry-Suroît, Que.); Lysane Blanchette-Lamothe, who lost her Quebec seat in 2015; and Christine Moore (Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Que.), who has led discussions about parental leave.
“I’m in a party where, yeah, as a 34-year-old woman I can run for leader and I can run for prime minister and for me that makes total sense and…along the way things happen,” Ms. Ashton said. “One of those things is getting pregnant.”
“I’ve been in politics for almost a decade now and obviously the window on being pregnant and having kids is not a forever one for a woman and so, while I’m doing this work and while I’m in the leadership, this is also something that’s part of my life,” said Ms. Ashton, who has been on the road “almost non-stop” since April, touring Alberta, Saskatchewan, Ontario, and Quebec. Next week, she heads to the Atlantic, where the leadership debate is scheduled June 11 in St. John’s, N.L.
Born in a political family, Ms. Ashton’s father is former Manitoba provincial NDP cabinet minister Steve Ashton. Ms. Ashton, who ran unsuccessfully in the 2012 NDP leadership campaign, speaks Greek, French, English, and Spanish fluently, and has been studying Mandarin, Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Turkish, and Cree. She is also working on her PhD in peace and conflict studies at the University of Manitoba.
“Challenging the notion you can only do one thing at a time is key—or that pregnancy derails the course of your life,” said Ms. Ashton, who is due in November, a month after the leadership vote. Ms. Ashton’s partner is Bruce Moncur, who ran unsuccessfully in 2014 for the federal NDP nomination in Windsor-Tecumseh, Ont., and is a founding member of the Afghanistan Veterans Association of Canada.
Equal Voice, which aims to bring more women into politics, said Ms. Ashton’s happy news is both significant and encouraging.
“Her journey may be instructive,” said Nancy Peckford, Equal Voice’s national spokesperson. “Maybe it will be a catalyst to further accommodate more significantly the life stages that a woman giving birth while serving in elected office confronts.”
The numbers of women elected to the House of Commons hovered around 20 per cent between 1993 and 2011, according to Equal Voice. In 2011 that rose to 25 per cent, and since 2015 voters elected a record 92 women MPs, who make up 27 per cent of the House of Commons.
While Ms. Peckford can see there’s “a curiosity and perhaps some concern” about whether pregnancy could impede her ability, Equal Voice flips the question to ask how Canada’s institutions can better accommodate those of childbearing age.
The burden shouldn’t be on individual women like Ms. Ashton to navigate their obligations “as an elected member with a newborn, and also at the late stages of pregnancy where travel becomes more difficult,” said Ms. Peckford, calling for systemic change.
Canada needs to innovate “in ways that signal to women that regardless of your life stage, if you want to serve in elected office, [having a child] should not get in your way.”
Three decades ago, Sheila Copps became the first sitting MP to give birth. Since then, as few as 10 women have followed suit, according to a Library of Parliament search of news archives.
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 many ways, Ms. Copps said she sees more promise in the political sphere than the private sector. The Procedure and House Affairs Committee has been looking at ways to make Parliament more family friendly and there’s a daycare on the Hill, though it doesn’t take children under 18 months. Last year the House launched a nanny service with a local company offering flexible hours and care for younger children for a fee. In 2012, when then NDP MP Sana Hassainia brought her baby into the House, then House Speaker Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) issued a clarification that infants are allowed in the Commons, which has become a more frequent occurrence in the intervening years.
There’s always strength in numbers, said Ms. Copps.
“It changes the dynamic. I think the challenges of merging political life and family life are still more challenging for women,” said Ms. Copps and though comments aren’t “articulated as boldly” as when she became a mother in 1987, she suspects the negative perception persists.
It often comes back to the same old tired question, the very premise of it sexist: can women have it all?
“Women are expected to be sort of perfect mothers and perfect politicians and the expectations are set so high,” said Ms. Copps.
After 10 years in politics, three terms at the federal level, Ms. Ashton said she’s no stranger to sexism.
“I’ve seen the way in which women are criticized in every which way, whether it’s what we’re wearing, or how we sound or how we look, what we talk about … or too much of this or not enough of that so it’s not new to me.”
Progressives see, Ms. Ashton said, the need to “employ a feminist lens and that is one where we don’t see pregnancy or child rearing or lack of pregnancy or lack of desire to have kids as barriers in terms of what we choose to do in our lives.”
A male politician doesn’t announce his spouse’s pregnancy, for instance, said Lisa Kinsella, a former federal Liberal Hill staffer and a managing partner of the Toronto-based consulting firm Daisy Group.
“Would anyone ever consider saying to him ‘are you still committed to being in this race?” said Ms. Kinsella. “It simply wouldn’t happen. We don’t ask these questions of men.”
Ms. Ashton said she’s happy to share good news and it didn’t bother her having to make the announcement—“it’s pretty obvious,” she said with a laugh—but she also made a clear choice in her statement and subsequent interviews not to focus on her pregnancy or personal matters.
“My focus is running to be leader of NDP… to build a movement for social, economic, and environmental justice,” said Ms. Ashton.
She’s been pleased by the public support—save for comments from Rebel Media co-founder Brian Lilley, who took exception to Ms. Ashton’s phrasing in her announcement because he said she wasn’t clear she’s having a baby. She accepted his “profuse” apology, but doubted it would have happened if not for the swift online backlash.
For Ms. Kinsella, some of that online chatter is appalling, and said she’s most angered by the suggestion mothers can’t be as committed.
Still, she said there is value in the conversation. Some, she said, suggested that if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (Papineau, Que.) were truly committed to feminism and gender parity, he wouldn’t have bothered mentioning it during his cabinet announcement.
“And I respond to that by saying, ‘But if we do it, then we never talk about it, it’s not going to become normalized.’ We need young women to have to have role models to look up to,” Ms. Kinsella said.
For Alice Funke of Pundits’ Guide, progress is made when it becomes a question of familiarity.
“With all of these issues, there’s going to be a group on the vanguard for whom this is normal and it’s going to come as a surprise to a larger group of people until they’re exposed to the idea,” she said. “It was the same with women entering politics.”
Several interviewed said Ms. Ashton is helping set an example. And while the Manitoba MP said it’s not intentional, she is running to put forward a progressive, feminist agenda.
But like Ms. Copps, who has occupied a number of other—more notable—firsts as deputy prime minister and as the first woman to run for the federal Liberal leadership, Ms. Ashton may yet discover long-term impacts of this addition to her family.
“[People] don’t necessarily remember what you did on climate change,” Ms. Copps said. “They remember you having a baby and bringing her to Parliament and what that said to the nation.”
Source: Library of Parliament and news archives search
The Hill Times