It’s been a busy few days for NDP leadership candidate Niki Ashton.
Fresh off a weekend trip to British Columbia, the 34-year-old MP had just a few minutes to take a call at the airport early Monday before boarding a plane for the next leg of her campaign. Two attempts to catch her between commitments last week had failed.
“I’m looking forward to heading to the Atlantic,” Ashton said. “We’re going to have our Atlantic debate, (and) we’ll be doing an Atlantic tour along with that.”
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With the Conservative leadership race quickly retreating into the distance, Ashton and her four competitors have a window of a few weeks to grab some national attention before Canadians head to the cottage or the beach.
Even with the recent addition of sartorially gifted Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, Ashton remains the youngest candidate vying to replace Tom Mulcair in October. She’s anti-Kinder Morgan pipeline, anti-privatization and has championed free tuition for post-secondary students across Canada.
She also happens to be pregnant, a fact that she announced last week almost as a footnote in a release that dealt mainly with her most recent debate performance. It was a clear signal that Ashton wants the focus to remain on her policy commitments and her vision for the NDP’s future, not her impending motherhood.
She reiterated Monday that she’ll continue travelling, debating and meeting with Canadians as planned, throughout the rest of the race and beyond.
“Certainly the feedback that I’ve received has been very positive,” she said.
“I mean, millions of Canadian women do very challenging work and are obviously incredible in being able to carry forward (with a baby). And, you know, they inspire me. I’m proud to be part of a party that believes in women’s equality and that means making room for women of all generations.”
If she wins, however, Ashton will automatically be something of a trailblazer; the first female leader of a major federal party to attempt to balance the demands of a newborn with duties both in and out of the House of Commons.
It’s a balance that other new moms have struggled to maintain in recent decades. In 1987, Liberal Sheila Copps became the first sitting MP to give birth. Copps ran for the party leadership three years later but lost.
By the end of the ’90s, the NDP’s Michelle Dockrill was bringing her seven-week-old baby into the Commons for votes and since then, it’s become much more commonplace.
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MPs Helena Guergis (whose early labour actually began as she was making a statement in the House), Rosane Doré Lefebvre and Christine Moore are just some of the moms who’ve had their newborns in tow for committee meetings, Question Period and public events.
‘Inevitably there will be some backlash’
Despite this history, the executive director of Equal Voice Canada — which advocates for more female representation in politics — says Ashton is likely to face questions (spoken or unspoken) about how she’ll make it work.
“I think inevitably there will be some backlash,” said Nancy Peckford.
“She’ll figure it out, I have no question, but I don’t think that’s the issue … Niki Ashton will not be the only MP who finds herself expecting a child in this Parliament. There are other young women who could easily be in that situation in the next few months or years.”
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It remains incumbent upon Parliament and its leaders, Peckford said, to finally respond to three decades of pressure and make the changes that will make things it easier for all parents.
“Nobody’s asking for privilege or what other Canadians don’t have, but at this point we have a situation where elected members have much less access to standard accommodations, in terms of leave and work innovations, that some would regard as very basic.”
The daycare on Parliament Hill still doesn’t take children under 18 months, for instance. MPs also don’t pay into employment insurance, which means they must normally be back on the job within 21 days after they (or their partner) give birth, or else they’ll be docked pay. Sometimes extra time away can be worked out with help from party whips.
Room to grow
There have been modest improvements as the number of new parents has grown. A rent-a-nanny service (paid for out of an MP’s pocket) that provides flexible care for babies was recently introduced on the Hill, as was reserved parking and a special room where MPs can spend time with their children.
Additional accommodations like short-term parental leave, video conferencing and e-voting in the House have already been introduced in other Westminster democracies like Australia, Peckford pointed out. But Canada is still lagging.
A recent attempt to take steps toward e-voting and the elimination of Friday sittings (among many other changes) died a very public death this spring when the Opposition cried foul over a perceived lack of consultation, or consent.
“Every MP sort of pays the price for that, in some way, shape or form,” Peckford said. “There’s very little latitude, apart from what the party gives … We have some work to do.”
As for Ashton, she’ll be back on stage Sunday for the party’s next debate in St. John’s.
She agrees that there’s room for improvement when it comes to support for MPs with kids, “but my interest is to see more support for parents across the country … these are policies that would lift all women up.”
Right now, the barriers for young women entering political life remain “significant,” acknowledged Ashton, who was first elected at the age of 26.
“We need comprehensive policy whether it’s on parental leave or on childcare, to ensure that mothers and parents have the supports necessary.”