TORONTO — Kyle Peterson wanted to be more than a “FaceTime father.”
The Liberal MP for the Ontario’s Newmarket-Aurora riding used the popular video chat tool to reach his boys, Kolton, 9, and Kash, 7, on all those weekdays he was away from them.
He’d call before they got on their school bus. He’d try to touch base after they got home, chatting about the school recitals and hockey practices he missed. The connection wasn’t great.
When he announced in March he wouldn’t run again this fall, Peterson told his constituents he was finding it “increasingly difficult to find a balance” between his role as MP and being there for his boys. They’re growing up fast, “as kids tend to do,” he said in a public letter.
That’s why Peterson, first elected in 2015 after an unsuccessful bid four years earlier, is walking away after just one term.
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“Politics will always be there,” he told HuffPost Canada this spring. “The kids are only this age once.”
Retiring politicians often say they want to “spend more time with family,” sometimes seen as a shorthand for taking a break before inevitably jumping back into the arena.
Yet other MPs headed for the exit ramp are also opening up about what the coveted job means for a young family.
Liberal MP Don Rusnak, who has represented Thunder Bay-Rainy River since 2015, also won’t be on the ballot this October. Both of his sons, three-year-old Carter and Theodore, 2, were born during his term.
For a short period last year, Rusnak tried to make things work by having his kids and wife, Amanda, living in an apartment in the capital and travelling with him back to his northern Ontario riding on the weekends.
“But the schedule here in Ottawa during the week is so hectic that I was hardly with them during the week anyway, and she was left without any infrastructure in terms of family supports,” he said. “So, it didn’t work that way, either.”
His family ended up heading home.
His first steps, saying his first words. There’s all kinds of stuff that I’ve missed because I’ve not been at home.Don Rusnak
“My young son… every week it seems that he’s changing. His first steps, saying his first words. There’s all kinds of stuff that I’ve missed because I’ve not been at home,” he said.
After four years, Rusnak said he is frustrated by the amount of time MPs must spend in Ottawa instead of back in their communities, where he believes most of the important work is done.
Rusnak suggests MPs should use technology more to cut down on travel and the time spent in meetings, noting that witnesses from across the country and around the world are able to appear at committee via video conference.
“We’re still voting by standing up and having someone count us. It’s a slow process. It’s a waste of time in my opinion,” he said.
Those weeks where most of the 338 MPs are flying or driving home on Thursdays or Fridays, only to return Sunday nights or Monday mornings, is “bad for the environment, bad for relationships, and bad for people, generally,” he said.
Serving as an MP is an honour and a thrill, but parents need to really think about the time commitment it involves, he said. One veteran MP told him they have virtually no relationship with their adult kids because of years spent focused primarily on politics.
“I don’t want to become that,” he said.
Alex Nuttall, the rookie Conservative MP for Ontario’s Barrie-Springwater-Oro-Medonte, also cited his kids as the reason he’s not running again. Nuttall’s office did not respond to interview requests.
“As I look back at all of my political accomplishments, they pale in comparison to the importance of being a father to my two incredible children, Caleb and Anabella,” he said in a March release announcing he wouldn’t re-offer. “No achievement is greater than one’s family.”
In his farewell speech to the House weeks ago, Nuttall thanked his wife and children for “allowing me to leave, and forgiving me for leaving, every single week to come to this place.”
‘The family became second’
NDP MP Anne Minh-Thu Quach, first elected in Quebec’s Salaberry-Suroit in the “Orange Wave” of 2011 that saw many young New Democrats swept into office, is also seeking a smoother parental path.
In 2014, Minh-Thu Quach gave birth to her daughter, Mila. But because MPs lacked a formal parental leave policy, she returned to work just four weeks later. Her husband stayed home with the baby, travelling back and forth between the riding and Ottawa.
“The family became second,” she said. “My daughter second, and my husband third.”
Minh-Thu Quach is due to deliver a second child in September and knows it’s time for a “slower” lifestyle, even if the decision to leave was a “heartbreaking” one.
Her daughter would throw tantrums because she missed her mom, she said. There were nights she only had 20 free minutes to hold her, and other nights she missed bedtime altogether.
There’s a guilt that creeps in by not being there, Minh-Thu Quach said, such as when she was out of the country for Mila’s fourth birthday. There were points she felt like “half Mom and half MP.”
“Sometimes [Mila] said, ‘You’re the boss so why do you have to go to work?’” Minh-Thu Quach said with a laugh. “That’s difficult.”
All of the MPs say that the job is truly 24/7, a grind that can put an incredible strain on families and often leads to divorce or separations.
On weekends and evenings back in their ridings, MPs are expected to show up at any number of community events that cut into precious time at home. It’s all part of the gig and central to getting re-elected.
“I’m an MP for 30 municipalities and there’s more than 400 charity groups. So, there’s a lot of activities every weekend,” Minh-Thu Quach said. “Every Saturday. Every Sunday.”
“Unless you’ve kind of lived it or been around it, it’s hard to appreciate,” Peterson said. “But even when you’re at home, your time isn’t yours.”
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On Parliament Hill, steps have been taken in recent years to make things easier for parents, including a family lounge and a ruling in 2012 that allowed MPs to bring their babies into the House of Commons.
Minh-Thu Quach said that while several MPs weren’t thrilled little ones would be allowed in the chamber, “when MPs are yelling, they are more disturbing than a baby crying.”
As he says goodbye to Ottawa, Rusnak thinks it will be “pretty special” to look back at photos of his sons on Parliament Hill. The older one still thinks his dad works in a castle.
In the final days of this Parliament, the House unanimously adopted a parental leave policy that will allow MPs who have welcomed a child into their family to step away from the Commons for up to a year, without facing financial penalty.
Before the tweak, MPs who missed more than 21 days of sitting time in a session, for a reason other than official business or illness, were docked $120 a day.
Democratic Institutions Minister Karina Gould, who last year became the first federal minister to give birth in office, told HuffPost the “long overdue” change tells young women they shouldn’t have to choose between a family and an ambitious career.
“I think what’s really important about this is it gives women and new parents… the permission, so to speak, and legitimacy in taking time off to spend with their new child,” Gould said.
But other ideas, such as a proposal floated by Liberals to eliminate Friday sittings so that MPs could get home to constituents and their families sooner, ultimately went nowhere.
“People talk about not having Friday sittings and things like that but even if I wasn’t in Ottawa Friday, I would still be working all day Friday in the riding,” Peterson said.
Minh-Thu Quach thinks that having fewer votes in the evening would go a long way helping MPs with young families, noting that it’s not uncommon for the House to sit until midnight at the end of the session.
Despite the challenges, the MPs say they are honoured to have served in such a special place.
“Sitting in that seat, you think… there’s only 338 of us in this country and it’s an honour to be there to represent the people that elected us and even the people who didn’t elect us, making sure their voices are heard here,” Rusnak said. “I think I’ve done my best.”
And each say they will have no regrets about letting go of a job that so many others fight tooth and nail to keep.
“People say the decision must have been tough and in certain respects it was, but when I’m at home with my boys and my wife, I absolutely made the right decision,” Rusnak said.
Peterson told HuffPost he loves serving as an MP and hopes to do so again.
“But as much as I love the job, I’m never going to love the job as much as I love my kids, right?” Peterson said.
When Minh-Thu Quach gave her farewell speech to the House this month, she ended by saying, simply: “Mila, I will be home soon.”