It was a baptism by ire. Earlier this month, Sana Hassainia, 37, a rookie NDP MP and first-time mother from Quebec, got a taste of how the personal can become political. In news stories that went round the media, she said she felt pressured to leave the House of Commons because she had brought her three-month-old son, Skander-Jack, into the chamber for a vote (related to the abolition of the long-gun registry).
The incident caused a commotion not just in the chamber, causing MPs to erupt in debate about the family-unfriendly nature of Parliament, where there are no maternity benefits, but also outside in a media scrum.
Later, House Speaker Andrew Scheer issued a clarification, saying he had instructed the page not to bounce infant and mom, but to ask them to take their seats. Some MPs had been taking pictures of the baby, and photographs are not allowed. MPs should try to arrange childcare as best they can, he said, but in cases of emergency, babies are allowed.
The Globe and Mail spoke to Ms. Hassainia, who represents Verchères-Les Patriotes (just east of Montreal), on the phone from her office in Ottawa.
What was it like to suddenly be part of the news cycle?
I didn’t expect it at all. I didn’t think the story would go around the media the way it did nor that it would interest so many people, even people in the other parties.
Was there anything in your life before you were elected to prepare you for political life?
Not really, except just being interested in politics. I was born in Tunisia, grew up in France, and then I returned to Tunisia before I immigrated to Canada in 2000. I was a teacher of French and when I came to Canada, I worked in a printing company in administration. My husband and I were always interested in politics when we lived in Tunisia, but at that time in Tunisia, it was a dictatorship so it was hard to get involved.
Did the incident feel like a harsh introduction into the life of a politician?
As a first-time member of Parliament, I have learned a lot since the election, but these last few weeks have been an accelerated course. I didn’t necessarily like it, especially for my son who suddenly found himself in pictures and all of that. I am protective of him like all mothers would be. But I tried to see it as something positive. It allowed for the issue of family and work consideration, which hadn’t been debated for a while, to be reopened.
Did you worry about taking on such a demanding job and having a young baby?
I was already pregnant during the campaign. And of course, I thought about it, but I felt that I was ready and up for it.
When did you return to work after having the baby?
I took two months off. But even if I had had the opportunity to take maternity leave, I wouldn’t have taken it, because I felt I should be back at work as soon as possible representing my constituents.
What is your childcare and work balance like?
My son is too young to be in day care so he stays at home with his father. It hasn’t been a long time since my husband arrived in Canada. When he came here, I soon became pregnant so we decided it would be best if he stayed home with the baby. He was a reporter in Tunisia before.
At the moment, I come into the office every day but it’s a juggle to fit everything into the schedule because I am breastfeeding. We live about a 15-minute drive away in the town of Gatineau, Que., and I go back home two or three or times a day to breastfeed the baby, in between committee meetings, votes, meetings and Question Period. Sometimes, I express my milk and leave it with my husband so he can feed the baby when I am gone. The daily routine changes every day.
What happened on that day in the House of Commons?
I was not in my office at that moment, and there was an unexpected call to vote. We were all together in the car in the Gatineau on the Quebec side of the river, coming home from the grocery store. We had about 20 minutes to get to the Parliament buildings to vote, so there was no time to take the baby home first.
When we got to the House of Commons, there was 15 minutes before the vote, so I had time to quickly breastfeed the baby in a staff office upstairs and I planned to leave the baby with his father. But when I came out and went down to the lobby, there was a little less than two minutes before the vote. I couldn’t find my husband. So I had to take the baby into the House.
Did you hesitate?
Yes, but I had already been told before by party officials that it was okay to bring a baby into the House, in the case of emergency. Also it was a vote that was meant to last only five minutes, so I thought that would be fine.
Was there commotion right away?
It was only the three or four MPs who sit around me who leaned over to talk to me a little bit and look at the baby. Everyone likes to look at a baby. It’s natural.
Do you feel as a woman who brings a baby to the office, you are seen as less committed to your work?
I feel that very much. It’s weird that we are perceived as weak if we bring our child into work, whereas a father who looks after his child in the workplace, even if it’s on the rare occasion, he will be seen as a hero and a modern father.
I understand that you gave your son a hyphenated first name, Skander-Jack, with the Jack being a tribute to Jack Layton.
We found out I was having a boy in July and when Jack Layton died, we decided to give the second name as a tribute. He was born in November, a few months after he died. It is a private thing, done with discretion. We didn’t tell the Layton family. Skander is Alexander but of Russian and Turkish origin.
Would you take your baby into House of Commons again?
Only if I didn’t have a choice, as before. I would try very hard not to do it again.
Do you have a cradle for him in your office just in case?
Not at all. I would never even bring him here for a nap.
You must be tired.
No. I don’t feel it too much.
Is the baby sleeping through the night?
No, not yet. Last night, he actually woke up every hour on the hour.
Are you up for having more?
Definitely. We would like another child.
This interview has been condensed and edited.