Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
Thank you to the committee for having me and for taking the opportunity to discuss my private member's bill.
I also want to take a quick opportunity to introduce you to my assistant, Steven Patterson, who has been extremely helpful on this bill from the beginning. He was still a student in fourth year at Queen's University when he started working on this bill. He has recently informed me that he is going to be moving on to go to law school. I knew that I would lose him eventually, in the fall. I feel that he has just as much right to sit at this table today as I do.
I'll keep my remarks brief, Mr. Chair, to allow as much time as possible for answers to the committee's questions. I'll first explain my rationale for introducing this bill, and then I will contribute my ideas for possible amendments given some of the events that happened in yesterday's budget.
This bill was inspired by a constituent in my community named Melodie. That is where it all began. I'll remind you quickly of Melodie's story, which highlighted a gap in the EI system and ultimately inspired me to introduce this legislation.
Melodie is a welder in my community. In mid-2014 she became pregnant, and like many expectant mothers, she consulted with her medical practitioner to ensure that she was taking all the necessary steps to have a healthy pregnancy. Upon describing the hazardous nature of her work environment to her practitioner, Melodie was told that she could no longer continue welding during her pregnancy, as the functions 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 Kingston, but ultimately they 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, but not sick. The second problem was that 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 the maternity benefits she was entitled to. This 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 that the primary source of the problem was a rule under section 22 of the EI 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 legislation. I strongly believe that no woman should be put in the position that Melodie was. In Canada in 2017, 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 one of these so-called non-traditional jobs. We need to think about how to level the playing field so that women have an equal opportunity to participate in all sectors of the labour force.
Mr. Chair, I was pleased to see that in budget 2017 strong measures have been included to do exactly that. Specifically, yesterday's budget proposes to allow women to claim EI maternity benefits up to 12 weeks before their due date—up from the current standard of eight weeks—if they so choose. While there are some small differences between this measure and my bill, yesterday's proposed change introduces exactly the kind of flexibility that I have been advocating for with Bill C-243.
I will now move to the second part of my remarks, which is to propose some amendments to my bill. In light of the changes proposed in budget 2017 and reflective of the fact that all members will have an opportunity to vote on that on its own, I would urge the committee to vote down the employment insurance provisions of Bill C-243, found in clauses 6 and 7.
In addition, the parliamentary legal counsel recommended that the committee adopt amendments that would amend the preamble by deleting lines 19 to 23 on page 1 and an amendment that would change the title to “An Act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy”.
Today I am submitting these amendments to the committee. I can provide them to the chair who can distribute them to the analyst or clerk. These changes would leave the first part of the bill, the national strategy, unchanged. This part calls on the Minister of Employment to develop a comprehensive strategy to ensure that pregnancy is not a barrier to women's full and equal participation in all aspects of the labour force. To be honest, this has always been the most important part of this bill, as the changes to EI were only intended to be a first step, and not a final solution.
The strategy will give the government a mandate to engage in broad consultations and to consider more comprehensive and long-term solutions. It specifies timelines, a list of stakeholders to consult, and clause 3 lists five basic conditions the study must cover.
In hearing from experts, I believe these are all areas that could potentially be improved by the committee.
In closing, I want to reiterate why 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 including more women as doctors, lawyers, business leaders, and politicians. While 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.
The national strategy proposed in Bill C-243 is an opportunity to further include these women in the conversation about gender equality.
Thank you, Mr. Chair.