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Ending Friday sessions of Parliament not right way to improve work/life balance: experts

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[Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 17, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie]

Dropping the Friday session of the House of Commons from the calendar is one of a series of changes under consideration by a parliamentary committee looking to make serving as an MP a more family-friendly job.

Members of Parliament are currently expected to spend around half the year in Ottawa, and those with family commute back to their home riding on weekends and during the summer and Christmas recesses.

Friday sessions in the House are already shortened affairs compared with the rest of the week, and the Procedure and House Affairs is looking at doing away with it altogether and concentrating five days of parliamentary work into four.

Jane Hilderman, executive director of the political participation non-profit Samara Canada, said the job of an MP can put a strain on a family, particularly those with young children.

“You face a lot of geographical stress as you have a job in basically two places, Ottawa and your local riding,” she said.

She said most face an “imperfect choice” between keeping their family in their home riding and leaving them for extended periods, or uprooting the family and moving to Ottawa. And even those who move to Ottawa are often kept late by committee meetings or debates, she said.

“If you feel that your family is struggling in your absence or you’re constantly conflicted, that’s not an ideal situation to be doing your best work,” she said.

Parliament sits for around 25 weeks a year, with lengthy recesses over the summer and the Christmas holiday break.

Samara Canada conducts exit interviews with outgoing MPs, and Hilderman said they often cite family issues as one of the biggest challenges to doing their job effectively.

The stress can be intense and divorce is common, she said, and the stress on the family can be a significant deterrent for some who choose not to run again or never run at all.

There is growing awareness of the importance of work/life balance, Hilderman added, as the House of Commons has transitioned from a body dominated by older men and society has moved away from traditional gender roles around child-rearing and home life in general.

“We don’t want to design a Parliament that only works for one type of person,” she said. “We want to have Canadians with different experiences, so that means different family structures, different sizes of family, from across the country,” she said.

The idea of dropping the Friday session has been around for a while, she said, but it has several drawbacks — not least that much of the parliamentary calendar is designed around five days of work, not four.

And, she added, getting rid of Friday sessions merely points to the bigger set of questions about how a 21st Century Parliament should be run.

“Committee witnesses can appear by teleconference now,” she said. “We could make that available for MPs, not all the time but sometimes if it’s necessary.”

Some have criticized the idea of a four-day work week, suggesting parliamentarians are shirking their duties as representatives.

David Akin, Sun Media’s parliamentary bureau chief, said MPs are well aware of the sacrifices the job entails before they sign up, and that the parties are having no difficulty convincing people to run for office.

The only place MPs can solve the problems they’re elected to address, he said, is in the House of Commons.

“Five days a week.”

Calls to Conservative MP Lisa Raitt, who has spoken of her own work-life balance challenges, and Liberal MP and House Leader Dominic LeBlanc, who presented the idea to the parliamentary committee, were not returned before deadline.

NDP MP Brian Masse says the idea of dropping the Friday session wouldn’t work because extending the existing hours from Monday to Thursday would be even more disruptive.

“It’s not as simple as saying , we cancel Fridays and we have more family time,” he said.

One difficulty, he said, is fulfilling his role as a parent and sometime disciplinarian when he’s stuck in Centre Block.

“I’ve had to do parenting on my cellphone in the corridors of the House of Commons, in the hallways,” he said. “You have very few windows to find any privacy, and you’re hoping your family’s going to be available when you’re free to call.”

When he returns to his riding of Windsor on the weekends, Masse said, he usually spends Friday and some of Saturday evening at his constituency office or attending local events.

“Weekends are usually heavy with constituency events, let alone family,” he said. “Regular life usually intercedes too. I’m not complaining, I know what I signed up for. But they need to do this in a way that’s going to fix it, not make it worse.”