THE STANDING SENATE COMMITTEE ON SOCIAL AFFAIRS, SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
OTTAWA, Wednesday, November 7, 2018
The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, to which was referred Bill C-243, An Act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy, met this day at 4:15 p.m., to study the bill.
Senator Chantal Petitclerc (Chair) in the chair.
The Chair: Welcome to the Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology.
My name is Chantal Petitclerc.
I am pleased to chair this committee meeting.
We are beginning our study of Bill C-243, An Act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy.
Before our witnesses speak, I would like to ask my colleagues to introduce themselves.
Senator Seidman: Judith Seidman, Quebec and the deputy chair of the committee.
Senator Ravalia: Mohamed Ravalia, Newfoundland and Labrador.
Senator Dasko: Donna Dasko, Ontario.
Senator Mégie: Marie-Françoise Mégie from Quebec.
Senator Omidvar: Ratna Omidvar, Ontario.
The Chair: Thank you to our witnesses for being here today. We are very pleased to have with us Mark Gerretsen, Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, sponsor of the bill; and also appearing as an individual, we have Melodie Ballard. Thank you very much for being here.
We will start with you, Mr. Gerretsen.
Mark Gerretsen, Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, sponsor of the bill, as an individual: Thank you very much, honourable senators. You have some exceptional clerks and research staff here that entertained us while we waited for your proceedings to finish in the house. I learned a lot about the Senate that I didn’t previously didn’t know coming from the other place. It was an enjoyable time waiting here.
Thank you very much, in particular, to Senator Mégie for sponsoring this bill in the Senate. This is a bill I started shortly after being elected in 2015. I have taken it through our side of the house. I’m now very honoured to have her continuing the work as it works its way through the Senate. This bill was inspired by a constituent in my community named Melodie. That is where it all began. I will quickly remind you about her story, which highlighted a gap in our Employment Insurance system and ultimately inspired me to introduce this legislation.
Melodie is, or was at the time, a welder in my community. In mid-2014, she became pregnant. Like many expectant mothers, she consulted with her medical practitioner to ensure she was taking all the necessary steps to have a healthy pregnancy. Upon describing the hazardous nature of her work to her practitioner, Melodie was told she could no longer continue welding during her pregnancy as the function of her job would be unsafe and pose a significant risk to her future child.
She reached out to her employer, a well-established and highly reputable shipbuilding firm in my riding of Kingston and the Islands, but ultimately were unable to provide reassignment or modify her duties in a way that would mitigate the risk. Forced to stop working, Melodie applied for and was granted EI sickness benefits. There are a couple of problems with this, the first being that Melodie was pregnant; she was not sick.
The second problem was these 15 weeks of benefits ran out long before Melodie was eligible to officially begin her maternity leave. For two and a half months, Melodie waited to receive maternity benefits she was entitled to.
The income gap led to serious financial hardship and ultimately resulted in the loss of her home and significant personal distress. When Melodie approached my office in early 2016, we researched the issue and found the primary source of the problem was a rule under section 22 of the Employment Insurance Act that requires that a woman, regardless of her circumstances, wait until eight weeks before her expected due date before she can start receiving maternity benefits.
For women like Melodie who are employed in occupations where it is unsafe to work at the early stages of pregnancy, this restriction can lead to long periods with absolutely no income. Melodie’s story is why I put forward this piece of legislation. I strongly believe no woman should be put in Melodie’s position.
In Canada, in 2018, no woman should have to choose between pursuing her dream job and starting a family. Evidence shows that women are still grossly under-represented in skilled trades, construction, engineering, science, policing and many other professions that would be affected by this bill. My goal with this bill is to address one of the barriers to entry for women who want to enter into these so-called non-traditional jobs. We need to think about how the level the playing field so women have an equal opportunity to participate in all sectors of the labour force.
This is what this bill is about. This bill, in its current form, is about having a conversation throughout our country, led by the minister responsible for employment, to determine what a federal maternity assistance program would look like so it could be modelled throughout the country. We don’t have to look far for examples of leaders when it comes to making sure women are properly cared for during their pregnancy.
We don’t have to look much further than Quebec, for example, as a province, or other countries in Europe that are really on the leading edge of this. We’re not reinventing the wheel.
In closing, I feel having this debate and developing a strategy is so important. Many of the discussions about gender equality in the labour force have focused on more women as doctors, lawyers, business leaders, politicians and senators. While that discussion is well-intentioned, I think these conversations often neglect the fact that many women, like Melodie, want to be construction workers, electricians, mechanics, masons, carpenters, machinists, boilermakers or welders, to name a few. That’s why the national strategy proposed in Bill C-243 is an opportunity to further include women in the conversation about increasing gender equality throughout the country.
Thank you very much.
Melodie Ballard, as an individual: I chose to be in the trades for the stability of employment opportunities. I thought they would provide me with the time and money I needed to raise and nurture a family. I was wrong. In 2014, when I became unexpectedly pregnant, the combined impact of working a hazardous job, lack of accommodation from my employer and, most importantly for today, no proper maternity benefits for pregnant women in hazardous work environments affected me for the worse. Because of the nature of my job I could not work while pregnant, even in my first trimester. I was advised by both my midwife and family doctor not to expose my pregnancy to my workplace’s hazards, as they posed a significant risk to both my life, and my child’s life. I’d like to list some of the hazards I faced at work, but due to time constraints I will offer them as an answer to a question if asked.
In the absence of a maternity assistance program, like preventative withdrawal in Quebec, I found myself resourceless every step of the way. I requested alternative work with my employer and my request was declined. They were unable to accommodate me with a position suitable for pregnancy. I had to take sick leave, where I received 55 per cent of my average pay and this only lasted for 15 weeks. It is important to note I was pregnant, not sick. Service Canada just didn’t know how else to handle my benefits with my leave of absence.
After sick leave, I would have no income again until I was eligible for maternity leave in my third trimester. That’s two months with no benefits or cash flow.
I was not initially warned of this gap when I opened a file with Service Canada. I was not initially warned the 15 weeks of sick leave and the two months of no income would be deducted from my parental leave. My parental leave was scheduled to end when Ezra, my son, was a mere four months old.
Gutted by those circumstances, I put in a complaint to Service Canada about the deduction. I was granted a three-month extension. That still meant I would have no parental benefits when my son was seven months old. During my 15-week sick leave period, I was restricted by the rules of the Employment Insurance program. Notably, I was not allowed to earn money. Again, I only received 55 per cent of my average pay, was about to face two months of no income while preparing for the arrival of my baby and I was not allowed to better my financial situation. The sick leave program is not an appropriate program for people with healthy pregnancies.
During the two-month gap with no income or benefits, I tried feverishly to find some sort of aid for my situation to no avail. I placed over a hundred phone calls to different levels of government, wrote several ministers and even resorted to community charity organizations. I took every suggestion made to me, explored every mechanism and left no idea untried. I can tell you with the utmost confidence that absolutely nothing exists currently to help a pregnant woman on early leave from a hazardous job.
I petitioned the Forty-first Parliament through my previous representative and did not receive a response. I followed up with MP Mark Gerretsen, who managed to carry the issue much further than I ever could alone.
All of this brings me back to my shortened maternity leave. As a Canadian, I had expected I would get to be with my own child for the first year of his life. At seven months old, I was not ready to put him in the care of someone else. He was so little, and our time so far had been disrupted with overwhelming stress from the poverty this loophole created in our lives. I do not feel I had enough time to emotionally or pragmatically prepare for the end of my benefits, because I did not receive adequate advanced warning to the changes that occurred to my file.
My work as a welder would have required me to work 10 hours a day. An honest day’s work, yes, but also a lot of childcare. I was still breast feeding. At seven months old, we weren’t ready. I turned to the Ontario Works program. I hoped they could see me through the next five months until my provincially guaranteed right to a return to work deadline, which was my son’s first birthday in May of 2016. There I was met with more problems. I had budgeted my life on $1,250 per month, which was my EI entitlement. In OW I received $847 dollars. To be clear, $847 doesn’t even pay for an apartment rental in the city of Kingston. For context, a full time living wage at the minimum line in the city of Kingston is $2,700 and a modest apartment is $990. Again, on OW I received $847.
I bartered building maintenance labour with a landlord in exchange for reduced rent, but the price was still too high. In another attempt to make ends meet I set up a home daycare in that apartment. I had to give up on those efforts when I lost the apartment. I simply couldn’t afford the rent. Once I lost EI benefits on my maternity leave, my tools became trapped in a storage unit I could not afford, I couldn’t afford a place to live that would accommodate my tools. I can’t be employed without my tools.
This poverty cycle is self-feeding and ever-worsening the more time passes. I have moved 11 times since discovering my pregnancy in September 2014. It started with the gap of no income. I was not in control of the shared temporary living arrangements we lived in. This resulted in me not being able to parent my son in the way I would have liked and being forced to helicopter over him in settings that were not designed for his safety. This unreasonably took emotional energy away from our relationship and from me as I grappled to find our way out of poverty.
The family homeless shelter in my town has a wait list several months long. Our situation was more imminent than the shelters availability timeline. In a panicked response that we were at the risk of living on the street, I bought an old 14-foot travel trailer for a couple hundred dollars. I collected scrap materials to fix it up and put my skills to work.
It was not ideal. It was better than nothing and the best I could do. I did this because no matter how many institutions failed me now, I’d have a roof for my son. To you senators, I did this because I lost faith in our system. A system that lacks a maternity benefits program and makes women in hazardous working environments choose between a career and growing a family.
I hadn’t expected to fall in a federal aid gap. I didn’t know there was one; no one seemed to know there was one. I hadn’t expected to use the Ontario Works program. I never expected it to be so far behind on the cost of living. Before Bill C-243 most people I explained my situation to, including government employees, seemed sure I had missed something. I hadn’t.
I want to speak to the total cost of a more inclusive maternity program. While no specific program is prescribed by Bill C-243, I speak to the anecdotal concern. What I went through was ultimately more expensive than if I had received EI for 20 straight months at the current rate of 55 per cent of my average income. It costs more money to allow for the destabilization of a person who subsequently will require support until they are stable again. Once on the hamster wheel of poverty, circumstance and opportunity have to align to get off the wheel. For me, that was shortly after my son’s second birthday.
I have an update I’d like to share with you. A few weeks ago I was contacted by Cassandra Grisewood of British Columbia. Cassandra and I are strangers to each other. She also works in a hazardous job and is currently pregnant. She reached out after researching how she was going to manage her pregnancy and leave. It led her to this bill and seeking me out. She, like I, has come up empty-handed with a suitable strategy that is both financially feasible and safe. Let that sink in, a woman from several provinces away is desperately calling a fellow citizen and stranger for personal advice in the face of the government failing her. Despite my extensive experience with this issue I had no solution to offer. She’ll be adrift, just like me.
I wonder how many women have gone through or are about to go through this situation. This whole journey I have used my hard work, creativity, resourcefulness and practicality and come up short. I am forever grateful to all the wonderful friends and strangers who have reached out and offered me help.
Some admitted it was my ability to articulate myself that led them to offering that help. I hope I have been articulate today. If so, I hope you will be moved to help me and more importantly, the many who can’t articulate the challenging situation they face. Women who work hazardous jobs shouldn’t have to face hazardous pregnancies and maternity leaves. They should not receive less time with their newborn children.
The Chair: Thank you to both our witnesses. Ms. Ballard, yes, you articulated it very well. In fact, your testimony was honest, clear and detailed. I think it really puts a perspective to this bill and is helpful as we go to question period.
I want to remind my colleagues we have five minutes for questions and answers and, hopefully, a second round. We will start with the deputy chair.
Senator Seidman: Thank you, Melodie, for sharing that story with us. It is absolutely unacceptable. It leaves me kind of sad because you were doing nothing but being a responsible parent by not wanting to expose yourself to this kind of situation, which would harm your pregnancy and your unborn child.
If I understand correctly, protective reassignment of a pregnant worker has existed in Quebec since 1981. It is a right set out in the Act respecting occupational health and safety. It is unique in North America. We have a Canadian model for something like that, and one that has been around for a long time.
Perhaps, Mr. Gerretsen, you might be able to answer my question better since you put the legislation together. It says here essentially the legislation asks the minister to hold consultations for the purpose of discussing the development of a strategy to implement a national maternity assistance program. The minister is responsible to report to Parliament within three years after the act comes into force. It doesn’t say anything about implementing the program.
What are the steps? Should there be some requirement the legislation lead to steps to implement a program? This is just a consultation.
Mr. Gerretsen: That is an excellent question. Had it been fully within my purview to put forward whatever I wanted in the house, that would have been it. The reality of the situation, as I am sure that many of you honourable senators know, is a private member’s bill cannot commit the government to spending money. If I was to have put such a requirement in there, it would have required a Royal Recommendation, which are few and far between in terms of coming to reality and passing through the house.
What I attempted to do with this bill, in its current form, is to start a discussion to get people talking about this and talking about why we are treating this situation so much differently in Quebec than in Ontario or British Columbia. And to get the minister talking about it. When the minister’s report comes back then, if I am still lucky enough to be here, that gives me the ammunition to start asking why we aren’t doing anything about this. We now have the evidence and the strategy on this, so why can’t we push forward? It comes to the financial part of it, and my limitations in a private member’s bill, as to why I didn’t put any provisions into enacting it.
Senator Seidman: That explains it. I would offer forward an amendment, frankly, but the Senate is in the same situation because we can’t put forward legislation that requires dispensing of monies either. You are hoping this is a pressure tactic in a way? That is, you get a report, then have a discussion and this discussion prompts a certain amount of pressure all around.
Mr. Gerretsen: I am a member of the governing party. I would never want to apply pressure to them. However, it is an opportunity to have a discussion and develop a strategy. Then the government, I am sure, will see a benefit to moving forward.
Senator Seidman: I appreciate that. Thank you.
Senator Mégie: I have a question for Ms. Ballard. How many children do you have now?
Ms. Ballard: One.
Senator Mégie: Have you considered having more children, given what you went through?
Ms. Ballard: I had originally considered being a person who would have two or three. I am not going to have any more children because of what I went through in having my first child. It was too stressful. That decision is permanent for me.
Senator Mégie: Did you have to change your career path? Did you go into a completely different field?
Ms. Ballard: That has also changed. I didn’t want to go back to welding. I don’t want to go through this again. I did everything I could to not go back. I’m not even in a dangerous job right now. I do 3-D modelling and shop drawings, mechanical drawings for fabrication. That is what I do now. It is a computer job. I don’t want to put myself in that vulnerable situation again. This did change that.
Senator Mégie: What advice would you give employers in construction trades or in the type of trade you were in to help other women who have not been able to change their career path as you did?
Ms. Ballard: A lot of these jobs are male-dominated work environments. I think at one point I did end up having a conversation with them when I was trying to figure out if I could return. One of the things I noticed, because it was male-dominated, is that when I was trying to explain my situation, it was a 10-hour workday and I wondered if I could work a shorter day because I wasn’t comfortable leaving a seven-month-old without a family member for 11 hours a day; I thought that was too much. The response I was given was, “Well, none of our other employees need this type of accommodation.”
I felt like the response stemmed out of the gender culture. None of those men gave birth to a baby. Yes, some of them are single fathers. Most of their children are school-aged or they are co-parenting with somebody else. They don’t have the same scheduling needs as I did in my particular situation.
There needs to be some gender sensitivity with women, especially when they are single parents looking to re-enter the workforce, and not to compare them to their male counterparts.
Senator Mégie: Thank you.
Senator Poirier: Thank you both for being here. Melodie, thank you for sharing with us some of the challenges you have faced. I also want to congratulate you on the strength you have had through that battle. That is why you are here today. I want to congratulate you.
My first question is for the member. In section 4 of your bill, you touched on the report to Parliament within three years after the day on which the act comes into force. Initially, you had put in the bill for the minister to report to Parliament within two years.
Can you explain why you had chosen two years and subsequently the House of Commons amended to bill to three years?
Mr. Gerretsen: It was amended at the committee stage with the HUMA Committee, the Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities, which is the committee that handled the bill.
It was an amendment they made at that point. I don’t know if it would be fair for me to comment as to what their reasoning was. Perhaps they sought out other advice that put them to changing it to three years.
In this process, there were a number of things that would change from time to time. This bill did a bit of a morph in terms of its original form to where it is today. That has been a result of a lot of moving parts that have been changing.
Senator Poirier: I also understand why you put forward this type of bill given the position you are in. You could not put in a private member’s bill such as, as my colleague was saying, in the Senate, a money-type of bill. This is, at least, a beginning step to the process of where we need to do something.
I’m aware the Province of Quebec has the Safe Maternity Experience program in place. You also mentioned there were other countries that have a long-term national strategy and how they work.
Can you share with us a bit of how those programs worked? Is there anything in what is happening in other countries and also in Quebec that can be used or shared? Is it a step forward to take some of the work that has already been done out there and move faster on this, if possible?
Mr. Gerretsen: There are a number of things being done differently. In Quebec, there’s the preventative withdrawal, where the employer may opt out to eliminate the hazard of an employee’s work or assign other tasks. In that case in Quebec, the employer, if they can’t fulfill the assignment of the work, they can opt out.
In Finland, there was another example. There is a class of special maternity benefits provided to women when conditions may cause a particular risk to a woman’s pregnancy and the hazard cannot be eliminated by the employer.
In Australia, if there is no appropriate safe job available, employees are entitled to take paid “no safe job” leave for the risk period. Similar programs exist in France, Hungary, Denmark and elsewhere.
What I sought not to do in this bill was to try to draw the conclusions as to what the appropriate measures would be. I didn’t want to go that far. I wanted the bill to be about doing that work.
As with any research, if you start to propose things, you will be debated with a lot of different reasons why it might not work here or there. The strategy part of this has always been about reaching out to Quebec and to the other countries, finding the best practices and then making a recommendation as to what that strategy would look like in Canada.
Senator Poirier: Each province is different. Each province has their own program. Have you had any discussions with the provinces across Canada to see if there is any way of working in collaboration with them to help people in a situation like this to make ends meet?
Mr. Gerretsen: No, but we did research what different provinces were doing. I recognize this type of legislation primarily falls within the provinces’ jurisdiction, as it relates to employment. However, we can have the discussion and set a national standard that the provinces will pick up on. In Ontario, we have our own building code; however, 99 out of 100 times, it follows the exact form of the National Building Code.
Although we did not seek to have a discussion about how that could be done, we did start to seek out and realize the vast differences between provinces.
Senator Poirier: Thank you.
Senator Ravalia: Thank you very much to both of you, particularly to you, Melodie, for a very compelling and heartfelt testimony.
I have a question for each of you. For the Honourable Mark Gerretsen, following up from Senator Poirier’s question, do you think it would be helpful for us to have a template that would underline the types of programs you think would be beneficial? If you could get a combination of something out of Finland, Australia and France, for example, it might be easier for us to follow a formula or a tabulated design to move forward with as a template to be used across the country.
Mr. Gerretsen: Absolutely. That is what the strategy is about; it is about developing a template, a benchmark and best practices that Canadians expect, which the individual jurisdictions can then look at as a model after which to create their individual programs.
I don’t want this discussion to just be about “women want to get into particular roles of work.” This discussion should also be about opportunity. We know that for 40 per cent of the existing skilled trades jobs, people will be retiring within the next five to 10 years. There is a great opportunity to fill a lot of those jobs that will be in high demand with women like Melodie who want to do them. We are going to have to provide the right conditions. Respecting the maternity process will be one of those.
Yes, it would be extremely beneficial to have a template at the national level that can then be looked to by the subregional areas — the provinces and the territories — to set that standard.
Senator Ravalia: Thank you very much.
I was a practising physician. We ran into a similar situation in the environment in which I worked. The nurse that administered chemotherapy for us, and who therefore had to mix hazardous chemicals, underwent a similar scenario. Fortunately, she had family resources that were able to step in. We were at absolute loggerheads to try to get her supports. At the end of the day, the answer was zero, including from the local nurses association, which astonished me.
Have you drawn up a list of the types of hazardous occupations? Often, they fall outside of the traditional skilled labour market as well, if you look at nursing, engineering, nuclear medicine, et cetera.
Mr. Gerretsen: Policing, radiology — there are many. Because, through this bill, we have told Melodie’s story, a lot of the attention has been focused on skilled trades, such as a welder and construction work writ large. There are many others like policing and engineering. The women in the engineering societies in Canada are fully supportive of this, because they have scenarios where female engineers are making decisions between wanting to start a family but also just getting their career going. “This means I will be limited in my ability to be in the field, the mine or wherever that engineering job takes me.” This covers a vast array of different occupations. Yes, we have compiled lists in consultation with these various organizations throughout the process.
Senator Ravalia: Thank you, Melodie. Would you like to outline for me some of the hazards you were exposed to and the vulnerabilities thereof? I hope if this bill gets passed we might be able to name it after you. You have been an incredibly compelling witness.
Ms. Ballard: Thank you. That would be an honour.
My workplace hazards included, on a normal day, confined spaces, electrocution, heat exhaustion, falling from heights, tripping from cords or lines, high exposure to ultraviolet rays, exposure to welding gas, exposure to vapours, inflammable solvents, heavy metal dust in the air, extreme heat burns, frequent heavy lifting, unguarded machinery — it was necessary, and not negligence on my employer’s behalf; it was the only way to do the job — constant loud noises, improperly adjusted workstations, vibration, poor posture for extended periods, repetitive use of force, and cuts and abrasions from handling sharp edges.
Senator Ravalia: Thank you very much.
The Chair: Thank you. This is very helpful.
Senator Omidvar: Thank you, chair. That is one remarkable story of resilience, Melodie. I commend you. I don’t want to congratulate you because you have been through a really difficult situation.
In this country we want to be gender equal in so many ways. Yet the occupation you have chosen, which is still male-dominated, has not really accommodated your needs. What was your investment in education in terms of money and time to become a welder?
Ms. Ballard: I went to St. Lawrence College for carpentry. I graduated from that program in 2011. I was hired as a boat builder at MetalCraft Marine about a year after that. They like to hire carpenters and turn them into marine outfitters and welders. They found traditional metal workers are not used to working within the same tolerances as carpenters. For boat building it’s the same tolerance as carpentry. It’s easier to take a carpenter and train them to be boat builders than to take a metal worker and do the same. I’m always open to learning new things. I went to the company.
My money in the trades went into carpentry training. My training to be a welder happened through the company.
Senator Omidvar: For roughly how many years?
Ms. Ballard: I started with the company as a marine outfitter. I took the opportunity to become a welder about four months before my leave. That company had paid me to do welding training for that entire time. Then I went on leave. It was about four months, full-time, of getting paid to learn how to weld and then they lost me.
Before that, I spent a year-and-a-half at St. Lawrence College.
Senator Omidvar: Roughly two years in all. Now, this company that invested four months in your training had an investment in you and yet they couldn’t accommodate your very reasonable request.
Ms. Ballard: Yes.
Senator Omidvar: I wonder about that. I am curious if the consultations you’re proposing would look at the role of employers in accommodating women in hazardous occupations while they are pregnant.
Mr. Gerretsen: Absolutely. That has to be part of the discussion. I do not believe this is something that can just be legislated and imposed upon companies and employers. This is a discussion that has to involve the employers. There is a certain onus on the employer, where and when possible, to reassign the individual to duties during the risk period to be able to continue to be employed by the company until they are able to return.
I said earlier this particular company is a well-known and reputable firm in our community that has been there a very long time. They’re socially conscious.
The owners of this company bring candidates in before an election to talk and encourage their employees to go out and vote. They’re well regarded. They tried to do what they could, but they just didn’t have anything to reassign Melodie to and that’s how she ended up in her situation.
Senator Omidvar: Melodie, I’m assuming you received the child benefit.
Ms. Ballard: The child tax benefit? Yes.
Senator Omidvar: How much is that for you?
Ms. Ballard: I don’t know the exact number. I qualify for the maximum amount of $640 or somewhere around there.
Senator Omidvar: When I add your Ontario Works and child benefit you are bumped over the EI limit. When you’re working — I want to understand the financial bit of it. This government has gone to some great extent in putting money directly into the hands of children, I would say, through their parents.
Ms. Ballard: Right. My child tax benefit has remained the same since I had Ezra. As soon as he was born I applied for it. I qualified for the maximum amount immediately. It has stayed that way the entire time.
One of my arguments is if I was able to keep momentum in my career, eventually I would start qualifying for less, which would save government money. This is one of those side pieces and a consideration of cost.
Senator Omidvar: Thank you.
Senator Munson: Thank you, chair. Thank you very much for being here. What’s your child’s name?
Ms. Ballard: Ezra.
Senator Munson: We’re talking here about the rights of the child under the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child. We were celebrating this National Child Day today in the Senate foyer, two weeks early. We were talking about those rights. Canada has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child but has not implemented many of them. One of the preambles to it is:
Recognizing that the child, for the full and harmonious development of his or her personality, should grow up in a family environment, in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding . . . .
What has happened in some cases is of state barriers, maybe unintended state barriers. This is one of them. We have to take a look at this convention because it’s Ezra’s right to have what we’re talking about in all of these articles. I think the rights of the child is an important thing to put on the table.
How many women in this country do you think are in your situation? Hundreds, thousands or tens of thousands who are facing this vacuum or gap, as it is called, in terms of what I would think of as the child’s rights?
Ms. Ballard: That’s a good question. As far as I know, we don’t have statistics. I don’t know if it’s countable right now.
Senator Munson: It should be.
Mr. Gerretsen: Even if we did know the exact number, we wouldn’t know of the women who wanted to pursue their passion but didn’t because they chose another job that they thought better aligned with another desire, which was to have a family.
Even though we might be able to quantify the number in Melodie’s position, we wouldn’t necessarily be able to quantity the number who could have been had they had the opportunity to pursue what they wanted to do.
Senator Munson: I once sat in the national caucus. There are a lot of pressures inside. I understand private members’ bills; we have all had them here and I have had one that has become law. There are smart people in government and good bureaucrats in the public service who are trying to do good things. Why wouldn’t the government, with this unique idea you have, just grab it for itself and say, “Minister, here, I’ve got a great idea, jump on this?” This is a no-brainer in the sense of caring for the child, mother, and family.
Mr. Gerretsen: That’s a good question. I don’t know if I’m the best person to answer. My answer would be anecdotal at best. You have heard me refer to this bill in its current form. When it was originally introduced it had provisions in it to amend the Employment Insurance Act as a starting place to give more of the post-birth maternity part of the EI to a woman in a certain hazardous job prior to giving birth.
While this was working its way through the house, the government, perhaps, saw the bill and said, “Hey, this is a great idea,” and ended up putting that into one of its budgets. When it got to the HUMA Committee, they removed that part because it was redundant at that point. The government had introduced it in budget legislation. I would like to think it was because of Melodie’s story that the government picked up on that, but no one confirmed that to me.
Senator Munson: If there is something that is working in the province of Quebec, why wouldn’t the government of this country embrace that model if it’s working there? Sometimes we live in silos in this country. We talk about these provincial jurisdictions. On the rights of the child, we can’t implement things because it is provincial. There are no borders when it comes to children. Sometimes I just don’t get it. I’ve been around for a little while.
Mr. Gerretsen: I’m a member from Ontario. I’m proud in the province I come from I have the honour of representing a small portion of that.
I’m also a realist. In my opinion, Quebec does a much better job at recognizing the fact society plays a role in the development of children. I think the rest of the country can look to Quebec as an example of this.
There will be those who say, “Well, this costs more” or other reasons why it won’t work in Ontario. This is why we have a great opportunity for the federal government to the set a national standard that the provinces can look to as a benchmark.
Senator Munson: Let’s do it for Ezra.
Mr. Gerretsen: Let’s do it for Ezra.
Senator Dasko: Thank you for coming today and talking about this issue.
I’m still a little confused about the Employment Insurance piece. To me, just following from what Senator Munson said, it would be to be an absolutely natural fit with the EI program, the paternal leave program. Explain to me why it isn’t there. Did you go there and say, “I have this great idea,” and they said, “Get lost”? Am I just dreaming this up?
Mr. Gerretsen: The reality of the situation is — and you heard it in Melodie’s intervention — it just doesn’t exist. When Melodie said to her employer, “I can’t continue working here because my doctor told me I shouldn’t,” and then she went back to Employment Insurance, they said they would give her an exemption and put her on sick leave. That was EI’s answer to this. We will put you on sick leave. Melodie wasn’t sick. She was pregnant.
Senator Dasko: I’m talking about the parental leave component of EI. That kicks in. You can get into that program before —
Mr. Gerretsen: Maternal is currently before.
Senator Dasko: And parental is after. You can get it into it before the birth.
Mr. Gerretsen: You get 15 weeks of maternity, of which you can take at your option, 12 weeks before the birth.
Senator Dasko: Right. You’re saying the 12 weeks is not enough.
Mr. Gerretsen: No, because Melodie was told at —
Ms. Ballard: I was still left with a one-month gap.
Mr. Gerretsen: That is also assuming you took 15 weeks of sick leave.
Ms. Ballard: I would have had all that deducted from parental leave.
Mr. Gerretsen: Right. It is then deducted from the parental leave.
Senator Dasko: Can’t they tweak this program to say here’s this situation with these women who are pregnant?
Mr. Gerretsen: Exactly. That is what I want to do.
Senator Dasko: That’s what you want to do. I thought you wanted to do an inquiry.
Mr. Gerretsen: The ultimate end goal of this is saying, “How do we modernize the Employment Insurance program, if that’s the vehicle it happens under to do this?” How do we work with our provinces to make a joint model, like what we’ve seen in Quebec, work in scenarios like this? I have been very reluctant to offer the exact answer. I think this has to come from a national discussion and looking at best practices throughout the world.
I think the solution lies somewhere in what you just said, senator. I also believe we need to allow the discussion to happen so solutions can come forward through proper channels.
Senator Dasko: You’ve got a process, but you already have the answer.
Mr. Gerretsen: I think I do. But to answer —
Senator Dasko: To flesh out what you’re saying.
Mr. Gerretsen: To answer the first question I had on this, I can’t propose what you’re suggesting anyway because this is a private member’s bill. That would invoke spending more money. It’s outside the purview of what I, as a private member, am allowed to present as legislation. This was the only way I could go about taking Melodie’s story and say to the government, develop a national strategy on this, report back and then we can talk about how to implement that.
Senator Dasko: I am sure there are all kinds of ways to skin the cat. You have one that seems to be a good idea.
The other idea is a panel. For example, this government has launched a panel inquiry into pharmacare. They have a panel of people who are experts in the field and they’re consulting and so on. Another way to do this is to set up an inquiry, a panel, whether it be high medium or low profile. They could do it that way. Was that not —
Mr. Gerretsen: That is a way it could be done. During the process of creating this legislation, there was a lot of back and forth with the Library of Parliament and the opinions that were given based on what would constitute spending money and what would not. In the pharmacare panel, I believe individuals on that panel are paid. That would trigger spending money and are we now outside the scope of what I’m allowed to present? It would be absolutely phenomenal if something like that happened.
Senator Dasko: That would be outside your scope but not outside the scope of the government. They could do that.
Mr. Gerretsen: Correct.
Senator Dasko: Why would they not have decided to go the expert panel route?
Mr. Gerretsen: It’s a question I can’t answer. I can’t answer on behalf of the government.
The Chair: Thank you, Senator Dasko. We are running out of time for this meeting. I want to thank you both, Mr. Gerretsen and Ms. Ballard, for being here. This has been very valuable. This is our first meeting for Bill C-243. We will be continuing tomorrow. We really value what you brought to this reflection and work for us.
Thank you very much.
(The committee adjourned.)