Karina Gould remembers a dinner with other female members of Parliament, not long after the 2015 election, where they spoke plainly about the struggles and challenges of political life.
Gould, then a rookie MP from Burlington, Ont., told veteran Liberal Judy Sgro that she really wanted to start a family but worried about balancing that dream with her demanding job. She also had concerns about how such a move might be perceived by her colleagues.
Sgro gave her some sage advice.
“There’s life before and there’s life after politics. And don’t let politics stop you from living your life,” Gould recounted to HuffPost Canada.
Less than three years later, Gould and her husband welcomed a baby boy, Oliver. By then appointed minister of democratic institutions, she became the first federal minister to give birth in office.
About two months after the delivery, Gould was back in the House of Commons.
Since MPs do not pay into employment insurance, they have not been eligible to take paid parental leave.
But a new policy, unanimously adopted by the House on Wednesday, will let federal politicians who have welcomed babies into their families step away from the Commons for up to a year, without facing financial penalty.
The motion stemmed from a report of the Procedure and House Affairs Committee, which has been working in recent years to recommend ways to make Parliament more family-friendly.
The leave will apply not only to MPs who have given birth but to those who have recently adopted. Pregnant MPs will also be allowed to be absent from the chamber in the four weeks leading up to their due date, without losing pay.
Before the change, MPs who missed more than 21 days of sitting time in a single session, for a reason other than illness or official business, were docked $120 a day.
Gould said the “long overdue” shift sends a powerful message that Parliament is a welcoming space for everyone, particularly young women who shouldn’t have to choose between an ambitious career and a family.
“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,” she said.
The policy offers flexibility, she said, and recognizes that MPs are still working hard even when they are outside of the House.
Gould was back in her constituency office weeks after her son’s birth, she said, popping up on conference calls, and doing administrative tasks each day.
“There were probably seven days, including weekends, from the day I gave birth to the day that I returned to Ottawa, that I didn’t work at all.”
When she returned to the capital in May of 2018, Gould introduced Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to her son, who was wearing a shirt that said “Special Advisor to the Minister.”
Trudeau released a statement welcoming Gould back to her ministerial duties.
“She now joins the many Canadian parents who work hard every day to balance their professional and parental responsibilities,” he said at the time.
Gould said she and her husband, Alberto, were “on the path” to trying to get pregnant when she was named to Trudeau’s cabinet in 2017.
“When I told him that I was expecting, [the prime minister’s] first words to me were: We will make this work for you so that you can be successful,” she said. “I think it’s really important for women or anyone who wants to start a family to know that you have that kind of support from your leadership.”
About a month later, Gould sparked headlines by casually breastfeeding her son in the front benches of the House. “Baby’s gotta eat (and) I had votes,” she tweeted at the time.
Watch: Karina Gould praised for nursing son in House
Former House Speaker Andrew Scheer, now the Conservative leader, ruled in 2012 that babies were allowed on the floor of the Commons after a misunderstanding led an NDP MP to think she couldn’t bring her infant son into the chamber for a vote.
Since then, it has not been uncommon to see MPs holding their babies during question period or other proceedings. Liberal MP Terry Beech recently wore his daughter in a carrier while making a speech on climate change.
Several MPs have given birth in recent years while serving, including NDP MPs Christine Moore, Niki Ashton, Anne Minh-Thu Quach, and Bloc Quebecois MP Marilène Gill. Gould credits all of the MPs for advocating for this shift.
Last year’s budget implementation bill paved the way for the change by amending the Parliament of Canada Act to empower the House and the Senate to “make regulations related to maternity and parental arrangements for its own members.”
But Gould suggests there is still work to do to change the perceptions about new parents stepping away from the Commons.
“Parliament Hill is still very much a male-dominated space. There’s still a culture that needs to change and needs to shift here,” she said. “As we get more women who are not willing to accept not being treated equally and fairly, that’s where we get this push for change.”
With a file from The Canadian Press