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Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has made it clear that 5:30 to 8 p.m. on weekdays is family time.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna has made it clear that 5:30 to 8 p.m. on weekdays is family time.

women in politics

For Catherine McKenna, balancing politics and family means setting boundaries Add to ...

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Like most women with big careers and young children, Catherine McKenna feels guilty most of the time.

She cannot shake it. "Everyone I know … whether they are in politics or not, you always feel guilty because you always feel like there is more you could be doing. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard," she says.

The 44-year-old was appointed last November to Justin Trudeau’s cabinet as Minister of Environment and Climate Change. It is one of the most prominent and challenging portfolios in the Liberal government, which is determined to reverse what it views as nearly 10 years of Tory neglect on the issue.

Although women have served for decades in federal cabinets, what distinguishes Ms. McKenna is that she publicly set boundaries on her time as a way of trying to achieve some balance in her life – and assuage that ever-present guilt.

Not long after being sworn in to cabinet, Ms. McKenna made it clear, even in some interviews, that from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. during the week, her BlackBerry is turned off and she is at home with her husband, who is a writer, and three children – two daughters, 11 and 9, and a seven-year-old son – having dinner and staying on top of the homework.

At 8 p.m., she is back working – reading or making calls.

"It’s not perfect, but having come out publicly and said that, it means that everyone is kind of on notice," she said, adding that, initially, she was being booked from dawn until midnight and her family was suffering.

"I just felt terrible," she said, noting that she felt she could not do her job well if she was worrying about whether her children were okay. "It’s a bit of a relief because everyone knows I am available after 8 p.m."

But is it working, really?

The Trudeau cabinet is gender-balanced. And the Prime Minister, who also has three young children, is trying to make Parliament more modern to reflect the reality of working families as a way of attracting more women to politics.

While the sentiment is there – and discussions are beginning about changing voting hours in the House Commons and possibly eliminating Friday sittings – no changes have yet been made. Parliament Hill is still very much a man’s world.

These are the early days for the new government, but for Ms. McKenna, it is still a constant balancing act, with work often trumping family.

"Generally, it works," she says. "There are exceptions. There are times I can’t get home."

Ms. McKenna represents the riding of Ottawa Centre, which includes the parliamentary precinct. She is almost apologetic for having an advantage over her colleagues who live farther away because her commute from Parliament Hill to home is a matter of minutes. If she has time, she walks or rides her bike.

The rookie politician grew up in Hamilton – "the Hammer," as she calls it. "You can’t be fancy if you come from Hamilton," she says of the working-class city in Southern Ontario. She notes, too, that it has helped her in politics as the Liberals were at times viewed as elitist and out of touch with Canadians.

Her father is a dentist, who emigrated from Ireland. A fierce promoter of Hamilton and Canada, Ms. McKenna says, he embraced Pierre Trudeau’s vision of a multicultural Canada. As a result, the four McKenna kids were sent to a French-language school a 40-minute bus ride from their home. Years later, Ms. McKenna is working with the younger Trudeau, and her father is proud to see her representing Canada at, for example, the recent Paris climate change summit.

Ms. McKenna has worked abroad, practised corporate law and run a non-governmental organization, Canadian Lawyers Abroad, which she co-founded. The charity organization engages in developing countries and Canada’s North on human rights, rule of law and good governance, according to its website.

But several years ago, Ms. McKenna wanted to make a change – to politics.

She had the buy-in from her family, especially her two daughters, whom she describes as "hard-core" campaigners. She remembers going to Parliament Hill before she was elected to watch Question Period with her youngest daughter. "Why are there so many men?" her daughter asked. "She really felt it was important to have more women there," Ms. McKenna recalled.

Ms. McKenna campaigned for nearly two years, taking a significant hit financially as she focused on winning a riding that popular New Democrat MP Paul Dewar had represented since 2006. Her team knocked on more than 100,000 doors, she says.

"You’ve got to think long and hard when you have little kids about what you’re going to do," she says. "You become choosier. Certainly, I became choosier. Whatever was going to take me away from them was going to be meaningful."

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