In the family way

Erin O’Callaghan explores Canada’s less than progressive family policies

The recent economic recession has affected everything from vacations to real estate; decisions to start and raise a family are no different. Job and income insecurity are likely to play a huge role in such decisions.

Professor Angela Campbell, a McGill law professor specializing in health and family/child law, said that women might opt to shorten their maternity leaves in light of the need to buttress income or concerns over possible company downsizing.

“[Women may] want the income or if the company is downsizing they don’t want to be vulnerable; they want to put in face time at the office,” she said.

Although the Canadian federal government does provide paid maternity leave and the additional option of parental leave, which can be shared between both parents, the government only reimburses 55 per cent of an individual’s salary during their time on leave; in tough economic times that may not be enough to subsist on.

In Quebec, the provincial government has undertaken its own maternity, paternity, and parental leave programs, which provide 70 per cent salary replacement for a longer period of time on a basic plan, and 75 per cent replacement for a shorter period of time on a special plan. Quebec is also the only province to provide paid paternity leave, as well as paid parental leave.

According to the Work Equity Canada Index, a study done by McGill’s Institute for Health and Social Policy, at least 31 countries globally provide a longer paid leave for women than currently provided by Canada, and at least 40 countries provide paid paternity leave. The accordance of paternity leave has been found to increase the number of men taking leaves and promotes equity in care giving.

“My son took nine months of parental leave [when my grandson was born] because it was the sensible thing for that particular couple to do,” said Judith Maxwell, founder of the Canadian Policy Research Networks and regular contributor to The Globe and Mail. “[Parental leave] strengthens the family and the bonds between the child and parent. [The government] should extend it.”

In terms of early childcare, Canada is at the bottom of the stack. A UNICEF study titled The Child Care Transition compared 25 affluent countries on benchmarks on suggested child care standards; Canada ranked at the bottom, below Korea, Mexico, and the United States.

The lack of early childcare may also impede the job search for many Canadians because without child care it is difficult to seek out and apply for jobs, and especially to make it to interviews, Campbell noted.

“You need some kind of child care if you’re looking for work. You can’t go looking for [work] if you can’t have your child in a safe space,” she said.

Despite Quebec taking a stronger stance on child care than the rest of the country, and fighting to provide good quality day care to everyone, there are still major wait-lists. At the McGill Daycare, for instance, the wait-list for a spot is two and a half to three years.

“We tell people to apply as soon as they know they’re pregnant,” said Lisa Gallagher, the director of the day care.

Campbell, an avid advocate for standardizing child care policies through a comprehensive national plan, said that the federal government is against the idea of a national day care policy.

“Since the Harper government was elected in 2006, it has been completely disinterested. Their concern is ensuring that there are jobs for people to work [during the recession] – a link was never made between jobs and child care [on the national level],” she said.

The Harper government instituted the Canada Child Tax Benefit, a subsidy of $100 a month for every child under 18, but this does doesn’t make a dent in the real costs of child care; $100 becomes the equivalent of one day’s worth of babysitting.

“Having a strong child care network is really important, and women will be the ones that end up staying home if there isn’t that network,” Campbell said. “You want to give them a real substantive choice [between working and staying home].”

According to Maxwell, now could be the perfect time to invest in early child care. In times of economic downturn, one parent’s income might not be sufficient support for a family. This means that more and more families have both parents working full time.

“The recession is the right time to go ahead and [invest in early childhood education]; governments are spending billions of dollars on infrastructure – this is social infrastructure,” stated Maxwell. “It will contribute immensely to the economy in the long term. Now is a great time to make the investment [because] it would mean employing a large number of people.”