Maternity and Parental Benefits

Québec has them, so why can’t the rest of Canada?

Mothering a child is associated with a significant drop in income. It has lifelong consequences for a woman’s earning capacity and employment-related benefits like pensions. And that’s above and beyond feeding and clothing a child or temporary loss of income when a woman stops work to take care of a new child!

One in every three mothers does not have access to the maternity and parental benefit program under Employment Insurance. For those that do have access, benefits are often inadequate. Improving maternity and parental benefits is one way to reduce the economic penalty that women pay for having children.

In January 2006, a new Parental Insurance Plan came into effect in Québec. More people qualify, benefits are more generous and self-employed parents are also eligible.

Maternity and Parental Benefits in Québec

The Québec Parental Insurance Program came into effect in January 2006. The program provides benefits of up to 75% of salary. Benefits can be as high as $649/week (rather than $417/week under Employment Insurance) and there is no two-week waiting period.

Eligibility starts at a minimum income of $2,000/year.

Self-employed workers are eligible for benefits.

And the Québec program has a more advantageous method of calculating the amount of benefits for seasonal and occasional workers and students.

History of Québec’s Program

In Québec, in the late 1980s, there was growing recognition that maternity and parental benefits under Unemployment Insurance were just not enough.

Sixteen community, feminist, family and union organizations founded the Regroupement pour un régime québécois d’assurance parentale. Thanks to their efforts, in 2001 Québec’s National Assembly unanimously adopted the Parental Insurance Act.

In the absence of an agreement with the federal government that would allow the new Parental Insurance to come into effect, the Québec government asked the Court of Appeal to declare that maternity and parental benefits were of provincial, not federal jurisdiction.

In 2004, the Québec Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the Québec government. But before the Supreme Court overturned this decision in October 2005, Québec at last reached an agreement with the federal government that allowed the program to come into effect.

Research Paper: Jurisdiction Over Maternity and Parental Benefits

Aside from federal/provincial division of powers arguments, the Québec Appeal Court decision raised some important questions about maternity and parental benefits. The Court saw motherhood as an individual choice and therefore an individual responsibility.

At NAWL, we think that society as a whole benefits from the work mothers (and increasingly, fathers) do raising children. The cost of raising children should be borne collectively.

The Québec Appeal Court decision on the Constitutionality of Maternity and Parental Benefits as Employment Insurance Benefits

Supreme Court Decision

In October 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada overturned the Québec Court of Appeal decision. The Supreme Court recognized the important contribution to society made by women who bear and raise children:

…the benefit derived from procreation extends beyond the benefit to the parents. Children are one of society’s most important assets, and the contribution made by parents cannot be overstated….

The Court ruled that absence from work in order to care for a new child was a legitimate reason to receive maternity and parental benefits. These benefits fall under federal jurisdiction as a particular form of unemployment insurance.

NAWL’S Platform for Improving Maternity and Parental Benefits

In Québec, more women now have access to a better maternity and parental benefits program. The Supreme Court has confirmed a collective responsibility for the work of bearing and raising children. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has called on the Canadian government to improve maternity and parental benefits. Several Parliamentary Committees have recommended extending maternity and parental benefits to self-employed workers.

We think that it is time for the federal government to start providing better support to all new mothers (and fathers) across Canada.

NAWL proposes an improved income replacement program for parents under Employment Insurance. We also want a complementary support program that includes mothers that do not qualify for the income replacement program or receive inadequate benefits under that regime.

Workshop on Improving Maternity/Parental Benefits

On May 10, 2007, roughly twenty representatives of women’s groups and national unions from Quebec and the rest of Canada met in Ottawa to discuss the weaknesses of the current Maternity/Parental Benefits regime. Following a presentation on the Parental Insurance Law of Quebec (Loi sur l’assurance parentale du Québec), participants discussed the proposals developed by the NAWL Working Group on this issue, which resulted from the past two years of pan-Canadian consultations with women. The participants arrived at a consensus around recommendations to improve the current regime, which is tied to the federal Employment Insurance Law.

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