Canadian MP responds to writer’s ‘odd’ story about trying to breastfeed his baby

Ashifa Kassam in Toronto
Canadian Conservative MP Michael Chong walks to a news conference with his wife and three sons in Ottawa. Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters

In the race to become the next leader of Canada’s Conservatives, he’s promised lower income taxes and increased financing for small businesses while taking aim at the politics of fear.

But it wasn’t these issues that catapulted leadership hopeful Michael Chong into the spotlight this week. Instead it was his unwitting role in a bizarre breastfeeding tale – after a newspaper columnist detailed her covert attempt to breastfeed his infant without permission and while she was not lactating.

Written by longtime freelance contributor Leah McLaren, the column appeared briefly last week in Canada’s Globe and Mail before it was taken down without explanation. Days later, archived versions of the column began circulating online.

McLaren – who has also contributed articles to the Guardian – wrote that she had been at a Toronto house party when she stumbled on a baby alone in a bedroom sitting in a portable car seat. Next to him was a monitor.

She was about 25 years old at the time, single, childless and “broody in the way that young women in their late 20s often are”, she wrote. After exchanging smiles with the infant, she wrote that she felt an instant connection.

She then picked up the child. “Somehow, my pinky finger ended up in his mouth and I was astonished at strength of his sucking reflex. ‘C’mon lady,’ said his eyes,” McLaren said.

“And I suddenly knew what he wanted. And I of course wanted to give him what he wanted. The only problem was, I had no milk. But would it be so bad, I wondered, if I just tried it out – just for a minute – just to see what it felt like?”

She began unbuttoning her blouse. As she was reaching into her bra, a man walked into the room, she wrote. “‘Oh um, hello!’ he said, in a friendly, upbeat tone that could not entirely conceal the fact that he was flummoxed to see me sitting there with my top half unbuttoned holding his baby. ‘I see you’ve met my son. May I take him now?’”

The man was Michael Chong, now a veteran politician who is one of more than a dozen contenders vying to become Canada’s next Conservative leader. After taking his son, he bade her a polite goodbye and their paths didn’t cross again for the rest of the night.

McLaren, now in her 40s, wrote that she now realised her actions were wrong and rude, and wondered what might have transpired if either of the parents had walked in when she was in the act. “I think if I found a strange woman – one who was both childless and milkless – nursing my baby at a party, I’d be inclined to give her a swift smack upside the head and then call the police.”

The archived column lit up social media, with many describing McLaren’s behaviour as inappropriate and verging on assault. Others questioned why the Globe and Mail had published the column in the first place. The newspaper did not reply to a request for comment.

On Monday, Chong confirmed McLaren’s claim. “Incident happened over 10 years ago. It was no doubt odd, but of no real consequence,” he wrote on Twitter. “Let’s focus on the important challenges facing Canada.”

His tweet sparked dozens of replies, with some urging him to make the most of the unexpected publicity. “Dude, you have a rare opportunity to turn this into a longish-tail story and steal media impressions from Leitch/O’Leary,” wrote one, referring to the two leadership candidates who have dominated media coverage to-date. “This is an admirable commitment to boringness on your part,” noted another.

The column caps off a strange month for Chong and his team, which had already included the revelation that the MP had become a poster boy for sanitary hygiene in Guatemala.

A Canadian tourist had spotted a stock photo of his smiling face outside a washroom in the country. The poster promised visitors clean toilets as a “special service for special people like you”.

The news earned a swift reply from Chong: “Just part of the Chong campaign’s international outreach in Latin America,” he joked on Twitter.

Canada’s Conservatives will elect a new leader at the end of May.