PROTECTING PARENTAL LEAVE BENEFITS: Supreme Court Ruling Supports Renewed Calls for El Reform

Article excerpt

EL a rare unanimous decision, the Supreme Court of Zanada recently confirmed the constitutionality of the ederal government's provision of parental benefits under Employment Insurance (EI). The federal government now has no excuse not to do a better job of ensuring that this essential social program is meaningful for all employed women and men.

The Supreme Court decision overturns the 2004 Quebec Court of Appeal ruling that the 1940 constitutional amendment granting jurisdiction over employment insurance to the federal government did not also transfer power over parental leave benefits. The Government of Quebec had sought such a ruling in the face of the Chrétien government's stonewalling over transferring adequate money from federal EI funds to support a new provincially administered-and more generous-parental benefits program for Quebec workers.

With the Supreme Court decision, women-over 90% of those who access parental benefits - can breathe a sign of relief. The new Quebec program is scheduled to begin January 2006: Quebec and Ottawa struck the necessary agreement last March. And women in the rest of Canada, with less generous provincial governments, have retained a critical national program.

But sighs of relief must turn quickly to renewed calls for the federal government to live up to its full obligations to women. And here the Supreme Court's judgment is again instructive.

First, the Court explicitly underscores the social nature of unemployment insurance: that EI provision for breaks in paid employment can be responsive to changes in the workplace. As the ruling states, "the social nature of unemployment insurance requires that Parliament be able to adapt the Plan to the new realities of the workplace." When maternity benefits were first introduced in 1971 as part of the then Unemployment Insurance scheme, just over one-third of women with children under age 16 were employed. In the intervening 30 years or so, women's involvement in the paid labour force has expanded. In 2005, we know that most women were engaged in the work force for some significant period in their lives, earning income their families need. Adequate parental leave benefits must be part of this new reality.

The Court goes on to emphasize the responsibility the federal government bears to enable women's equality in Canada's paid labour force, noting this responsibility tracks the rise in women's involvement in paid employment and thus configures the government's jurisdiction over employment insurance.

The first paid maternity benefits represented a signal victory for Canadian women's labour rights and a turning-point in Canadian social policy. For the first time, mothers had access to social insurance wage replacement benefits in respect of their distinct childbearing/rearing obligations. In 2003,65% of employed mothers with a child 12 months of age and younger received some EI maternity or parental paid leave benefits.

Maternity/parental benefits play a critical role in securing women's equality by supporting women's dual responsibilities for family and paid work. …