By training, I am an aluminum welder and carpenter. My career started in 2011 when I graduated from St. Lawrence College in Kingston, Ontario.
I chose to go into the trades for the stability of employment opportunities. I thought they would provide me with the money and time I needed to raise and nurture a family, but I was wrong. When I unexpectedly became pregnant, the combined impact of working a dangerous job, a lack of accommodation from my employer and, most importantly for today, no proper government aid program affected me for the worse. In other words, because of the nature of my job, I could not work while pregnant, even in my first trimester.
I had to take sick leave, for which I received 55% of my average pay. This lasted for 15 weeks. It was helpful at the time, but it ran out in my second trimester. I would have no income until I was eligible for maternity leave in my third trimester, eight weeks before the estimated due date of my son. That's two months with no cash flow.
I was not initially warned of this gap when I opened a file with Service Canada. I was also not initially warned that the 15 weeks of sick leave and the two months of no income would be deducted from my parental leave. My leave benefits were scheduled to end when Ezra, my son, was a mere four months old. I was heartbroken.
I put in a complaint to Service Canada about the deduction and was granted a three-month extension. That still meant I would have no parental benefits when my son was seven months old.
Before we talk about the end of my parental leave, I would like to revisit my sick leave for a moment. It's important to note that I was not sick. Service Canada just didn't know how else to handle my situation.
During my 15-week sick leave period, I was restricted by the rules of the employment insurance program, which I found to be grossly inappropriate for an early pregnancy leave. Notably, I was not allowed to earn money. Again, I was receiving only 55% of my average pay and was about to face two months of no income while preparing for the arrival of a baby, but I was not allowed to better my situation financially. The sick leave program is designed for a true sickness and is in no way appropriate for a healthy pregnancy.
During the two-month gap with no income, I tried feverishly to find some sort of aid for my situation, to no avail. I placed over 100 phone calls to different levels of government. I wrote to several ministers. I even resorted to community charity organizations. I took every suggestion made to me and left no stone unturned.
While I did discover Quebec's preventative withdrawal program, for which I did not qualify as an Ontario resident, I can tell you with the utmost confidence that absolutely nothing else currently exists for the rest of Canadians to help a pregnant woman on early leave from a dangerous job.
I petitioned the 41st Parliament through my previous representative and did not receive a response. I followed up with my current representative, MP Mark Gerretsen, whom I am pleased to say has managed to carry the issue much further than I ever could have done alone by his selecting it for his private member's bill.
All this brings me back to my shortened parental leave. As a Canadian, I had always expected I would get to be with my own child for the entire first year of his life. When he was seven months old, I was not ready to put him in the care of someone else. He was so little, and our time so far had been full of stress due to the bureaucratic mess I was in.
More than that, my work as a welder would have required me to work 10 hours per work day—an honest day's work, yes, but also requiring a lot of child care. On top of this I was still breastfeeding, while attempts at pumping had not been working so far. We just weren't ready.
I turned to the Ontario Works program. I hoped they could see me through the next five months until my provincially guaranteed right to return to work deadline, which was my son's first birthday, in May of 2016.
I had budgeted my life around receiving 55% of my pay in terms of EI benefits. Ontario Works represented a sharp decline in income. While we are not here to discuss a provincial program, I mention this to illustrate what came after my Service Canada file closed, the trajectory of being a mother cut off from EI with a seven-month-old.
Despite creative attempts to make ends meet, such as bartering with my landlord and offering child care to other families, I had to give up on those efforts when I lost my apartment, because despite my efforts, we couldn't afford the rent. The social housing wait list in my city, which we are on, is two to seven years.
I also need to point out that since resorting to Ontario Works, my tools have become trapped in a storage unit I cannot afford to pay for. I can't afford a place to live that would accommodate my tools, and I can't be employed in my field without my tools.
I have moved 10 times since discovering my pregnancy in September of 2015. I'm currently getting ready for my 11th move this June. The emotional and physical strain of unstable housing and poverty has been so taxing on my mental health that I have an application in progress for the Ontario disability support program as I battle severe anxiety and panic attacks. This all started with the gap of having no income.
Let me say that constantly moving between temporary housing makes committing to a day care or putting energy into a job search extremely awkward and difficult. This poverty cycle is self-feeding and ever-worsening the more time passes, as I am sure you can see.
In September 2015 I was skilled, willing, fit, and able to work, with an opportunity in hand. Now, in my second year of poverty, I am skilled and willing, but less fit, unable, and without opportunity. Last year, after discovering that even the family homeless shelter in my town had a months long wait list, I panicked that we were at risk of living on the street, so I bought an old 14-foot travel trailer for a couple of hundred dollars. I collected scrap materials to fix it up, and friends have volunteered their time to help with the project, and I put my carpentry, marine outfitting, and welding skills to work. I even launched a GoFundMe campaign to try to raise money for the renovation. It is not an ideal solution; it's just better than nothing and the best I could do.
I am doing this because no matter what now, I have a roof for my son. You, members of Parliament, need to know that I'm doing this because our social system failed me and is failing me. I hadn't expected to fall into a federal aid gap. I didn't know there was one. No one seemed to know there was one. I hadn't expected to use the Ontario Works program and I never expected it to be so far behind the cost of living.
Before Bill C-243, most people I explained my situation to, including government employees, seemed sure that I had missed something. I hadn't. During this whole journey I've used my hard work, my creativity, resourcefulness, and practicality, and yet I've come up short.
Canada has many social programs to protect health and financial vulnerabilities, and when people assume you must be covered, they're less likely to help. I was not covered, and women working dangerous jobs around this country are not covered. This must change for those women and for their children to come.
I am forever grateful to all the wonderful friends and strangers who have reached out to me and offered me help. Some admitted that it was my ability to articulate my needs that led them to help. I hope I have been articulate today. If so, I hope you will be moved to help me and, more importantly, the many who can't articulate the challenging situations they face. Women who work dangerous jobs shouldn't have to face dangerous pregnancies and maternity leaves. They should not receive less protected time with their newborn children.