Use it or Lose it: The Potential for Federal Paternity Leave

The Liberal government will release their 2018-19 budget on Tuesday, and Minister Bill Morneau and the rest of the Finance department have been very tight-lipped about specific line item details.

The silence broke this weekend, when the Canadian Press reported that the upcoming budget will include a policy incentive for fathers (or secondary caregivers) to take paternal leave. Modeled after a similar policy in Quebec, fathers will reportedly have a “use-it-or-lose-it” 5-week leave available, with paternity leave benefits in addition to pre-existing paternal leave benefits. A “use-it-or-lose-it” paternal leave, as Justin Trudeau explained, specifies only the secondary caregiver of a child can take this leave, or else it is not available to a family.

Currently, the government of Canada offers a maximum of 15 weeks of benefits to biological mothers and an additional maximum of 35 weeks, to be taken by either parent, or shared between two. Both of these policies offer a 55% weekly benefit rate. The purpose of a policy specifically for the secondary caregiver, often a father, is to “give parents more incentive to share child-rearing responsibilities, so that new moms can more easily enter the workforce,” an anonymous government official tells Global News.

This is the first time a federal law specific to paternal leave has been introduced. However, the Quebec parental leave program has been very successful. The Quebec provincial government offers up to five weeks paid leave for new fathers, and provides up to 70% of income in benefits. In 2014, L’Institut Vanier de la Famille reported 78% of new fathers in Quebec intended to take parental leave, while only 27% of fathers in all of Canada reported doing so.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alluded to this policy during his talks in India this past week, while discussing the gender equity goals of his government. To him, working towards gender parity involves “removing some of the barriers and the obligations and the expectations that hold women back in the workforce.” This comes on the heels of the first Canadian cabinet minister to take maternity leave. Minister of Democratic Institutions Karina Gould is due to give birth in early March, and will be away from her ministry until at least May.

However, paternity leave or none, there is no parental leave available at all for sitting MPs in the House of Commons. MPs are currently required to use sick leave in order to stay home from work after giving birth, which Karina Gould cites as being “really not the same thing [as parental leave].” To consider pregnancy and parenthood as an illness is a damaging parallel for new parents looking to take time off, especially for women. No parental leave for politicians is ridiculous, particularly if we are supposed to work towards removing the barriers for women returning to the workforce that Trudeau talks about. When the schedule of an MP is already demanding, it makes the convergence of parenting and politics very inaccessible.

Perhaps the next time the government is lauding themselves for the good work done with and for women in the workplace, they ought to look inwards. Until every workplace in this country, including the House of Commons, is accessible for all aspiring, soon-to-be, and new parents, I won’t hold my breath.