Evidence of meeting #52 for Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities in the 42nd Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was pregnancy.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

Melodie Ballard  As an Individual
Anna Nienhuis  As an Individual
Liette Vasseur  President and Professor at Brock University, Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology
Karen Dempsey  President, National Council of Women of Canada
JudyLynn Archer  Former Chief Executive Officer and Director, Women Building Futures

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Good morning, everybody.

Pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, October 26, 2016, the committee is resuming consideration of Bill C-243, an act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy and amending the Employment Insurance Act (maternity benefits).

Welcome to everybody.

First of all, appearing here in Ottawa is Melodie Ballard. I understand that your little one is with you. What's his name?

11:05 a.m.

Melodie Ballard As an Individual

This is Ezra.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Hi, Ezra.

He's got a cookie. He's fantastic.

Also appearing as an individual by video conference from Langley, British Columbia, is Anna Nienhuis. Am I pronouncing your name correctly?

11:05 a.m.

Anna Nienhuis As an Individual

That's pretty close.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Pretty close. Okay. Excellent.

Also via video conference, from the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, is Liette Vasseur, president and professor at Brock University. Welcome.

Can you hear me okay?

11:05 a.m.

Liette Vasseur President and Professor at Brock University, Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology

Yes. Perfect.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

From the National Council of Women of Canada, we have Karen Dempsey, president. She's also coming to us via video conference from Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Can you hear me okay?

11:05 a.m.

Karen Dempsey President, National Council of Women of Canada

Yes, Mr. May.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you.

Also, via video conference from Edmonton, Alberta, we have JudyLynn Archer from Women Building Futures, former chief executive officer and director.

Hello. Can you hear me?

11:05 a.m.

JudyLynn Archer Former Chief Executive Officer and Director, Women Building Futures

Yes, I can. Thank you.

11:05 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Excellent.

Thank you all for being here. We have a full slate of witnesses and lots of questions, I'm sure.

We're going to start everything off with an introduction by Melodie Ballard. The next seven minutes are yours.

11:05 a.m.

As an Individual

Melodie Ballard

Thank you.

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.

April 6th, 2017 / 11:10 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

Now we go to Langley, British Columbia, for the next seven minutes.

Anna Nienhuis, please.

11:10 a.m.

As an Individual

Anna Nienhuis

Thank you for inviting me to be here today to speak about the need for Bill C-243. It was amazing to hear Melodie's story and to be able to see where this is really coming from.

This is an exciting opportunity to evaluate the maternity benefit program in Canada. I'm hopeful that it will lead to changes that will mean every woman who chooses motherhood is supported in that decision from the earliest stages. I hope to contribute a voice that speaks for increasing the social value of motherhood and the need for a health benefit plan for pregnant and postpartum women.

I'm a mother of five children who range in age from three months to eight years. I was able to take maternity leave with my first three children, but for the last two, I fell short of the required hours. This was because I chose to work reduced hours in order to care for my other children, rather than putting them in other child care. I went back to work part time when my fourth child was eight months old, and now I'm starting part-time work again, now that my baby is three months old.

I am blessed to be able to work from home, but many women do not have that or do not want that. They would be faced with placing their babies in child care almost immediately if they were like me and didn't qualify for maternity leave benefits.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2009, 40% of new parents could not afford to take maternity leave at all, and 81% of them indicated that they would have stayed home longer if they had felt it were financially possible. This is overwhelming evidence that many women would choose motherhood as a career path, but are forced by finances to work two jobs: one as a mother and one to pay the bills. I work part-time as a researcher with a national pro-life organization, and I believe strongly in the need for holistic care for pregnant and postpartum women and their children.

In Canada, at least 100,000 abortions are performed annually, and the Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada cites finances as a main reason women choose abortion. According to AbortioninCanada.ca, 20% of women seeking abortions cite finances as the number one reason that they're getting an abortion. They don't feel financially able to welcome a child. It's so discouraging to know that 20,000 abortions are occurring annually because the mothers don't feel financially able to take care of those children.

Obviously, a lot of progress can be made in how we support pregnant and postpartum women so they do feel able to make a choice that's not decided by finances and fear.

For me, caring for my children myself has always been a priority. I have not always felt social support for that choice, as our government continues to push funding for child care outside the home and puts significant emphasis on getting women back into the workforce as soon as possible. This subtle pressure creates social stigma around stay-at-home parenthood, and implies that women who do not re-enter the workforce as soon as possible are a burden and a drain on Canada's economy.

This implication devalues our next generation and the choice those women have made. The next generation will allow our economy to continue to function. Our fertility rate is well below the replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman, and it has been for over 40 years. Our aging population is a growing concern. Obviously, this is not about forcing women to have two children each. It is about supporting those who would like to have children and about recognizing the contribution they make to Canadian society by doing so. When a woman chooses motherhood, that should be supported as a legitimate career choice, not a stopping point or a hindrance to another career path.

Along with a general shift to viewing motherhood as career choice like any other, I would suggest the committee consider also adding a health benefit plan to maternity and parental benefits. Such a plan would tangibly support women and children. For many women, particularly low-income earners and those who are self-employed, employment does not come with a health benefit plan. Maternity leave may be just enough to cover the necessities to allow a woman to stay home with her child, but extra costs, such as prescription medications, could be the tipping point that forces her back to work. For example, my son had bronchitis at two months of age, and the medication for a two-week treatment cost about $200. This is for an otherwise healthy child. Imagine the costs for a child who needs ongoing treatment and medication, or for a mother who needs treatment and medication. When finances are tight, costs may determine whether a woman gets counselling or medication to address postpartum depression, or physiotherapy to help restore her health after giving birth.

The implementation of health benefits would say that we care about ensuring the best health of the mother and that we want her to not just survive, but thrive, in her role as a mother. We do have an incredible health care system and maternity benefit program in Canada. I don't mean to discount that, but it's clear that people are falling through the cracks and more help is needed. I'm thankful for the maternity benefits I've been able to collect three times, but making motherhood a priority and a career choice for me has meant that, despite part-time work, I'm unable to benefit from maternity support for my last two children. I know that many without my support system would find that the current benefit system falls short, and often it's the women who need it most who suffer.

There's currently a gap evident in the lack of health plan benefits for many pregnant and postpartum women, and many women are choosing not to have children or choosing to end pregnancies for fear of the financial repercussions. There are many more women who are not getting pregnant in the first place because of financial fear, and many women who are not taking the best care of themselves physically and mentally during pregnancy and after giving birth because they fear the costs associated with seeking medical treatment. The Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada reports, “Many women state that they 'have no real choice,' [when having an abortion] as they do not have the financial resources to support themselves and a child.” All of this indicates a need for improvement. Motherhood is a choice like any other, and no woman should be made to feel lesser for taking maternity leave benefits or for choosing to stay home with her child.

Bill C-243 is an excellent opportunity to evaluate our national maternity assistance program and address gaps in the system. Improvements will show that we value motherhood and we want to ensure the best possible health for Canadian women and their children.

Thank you so much.

11:15 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

Now we will go to Liette Vasseur, president of the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, and a professor at Brock University, who is coming to us via video conference from St. Catharines, Ontario.

11:20 a.m.

President and Professor at Brock University, Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology

Liette Vasseur

Thank you very much.

I would like to also acknowledge Melodie. We met in May 2016 at the national conference of CCWESTT, the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology.

Thank you very much for this opportunity to talk about the private member's bill C-243. My comments are based on discussions and exchanges, I should say, with professional women who are part of two organizations: the Canadian Coalition of Women in Engineering, Science, Trades and Technology, and the International Network of Women Engineers and Scientists, which I am the president-elect of. I should say that in both organizations we have discussed these issues, especially in an era when women are taking a greater role in the job market.

I want to make three key points today. The first one will be on women in the new innovation agenda, the second is protecting expecting women, and the third is the need for a national strategy.

Regarding women in the new innovation agenda, in Canada women remain an important, unexploited workforce. Here are just a few numbers to illustrate this. While women in the entire workforce represent 47%, most of the trade jobs are in the fields of hairdressing, retail, or hospitality. In natural sciences and engineering they only represent 21.9%. However, it is important to note that only 10.5% of practising engineers are women and 9% of women apprenticeship program graduates complete a male-dominated skilled trade. When we look at trades such as welding and transportation, the numbers drop to 6.5% and, in construction, to 3.5%. Overall registration of women in non-traditional apprenticeship programs is a meagre 14.2%. Clearly, women are highly under-represented in many of these fields.

When we look at that, women can play a critical role in the new Canada innovation and skills plan that was delivered in the federal budget this year, but this cannot happen if they are not entirely supported, especially regarding when they are expecting.

As mentioned in the World Economic Forum's “Global Gender Gap Report”:

People and their talents are among the core drivers of sustainable, long-term economic growth.

It is, therefore, clear that as women roughly represent 50% of the Canadian population, they have to be part of this plan. The mining sector alone expects to require more than 75,000 new workers by 2021. But there are many obstacles, and maternity and maternal care are among the main factors contributing to women leaving fields such as engineering and sciences.

My second point relates to protecting expecting women. In general, working and expecting women are often exposed to various stresses due to their work environment and their pregnancy conditions. I think Melodie really expressed very well this condition.

One of the main challenges that women face is the upcoming financial burden, especially if they are single mothers or in a single-income family, which I was—and I was back to work two months after giving birth. When a woman is working in an environment that can be dangerous for her or the unborn, there is a need for better protection. How will she manage if she cannot continue working and if there is no financial support?

While the Canadian Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination related to pregnancy, the situation is not simple. As stated in the pregnancy and human rights in the workplace policy and best practices of the Canadian Human Rights Commission:

Pregnancy in the workplace is a fundamental human rights issue of equality of opportunity between women and men. Women should not suffer negative consequences in the workplace simply because they are pregnant....

Employers have a legal obligation to accommodate pregnancy-related needs unless the accommodation will cause undue hardship.

However, this does not help when the employer cannot accommodate a pregnant worker. On one side the employee has the right to fully contribute to the workforce, but on the other hand, when health and safety is important in these conditions, there is a need to support the expecting woman.

In Canada, under the current laws and regulations, and until recently, it was difficult for an expecting woman to stop working under these conditions—except in Quebec, where it's a different situation. The move to allow women to claim EI for 12 weeks under the 2017 federal budget, or 15 weeks under Bill C-243 before giving birth, instead of the eight current weeks, will already help a lot of women who are experiencing the stress of pregnancy at work. However, this will not completely solve the challenges of those who are dealing with dangerous conditions, like Melodie, or even in my case when I was doing genetics research in a lab. Adding some flexibility to be able to, for example, take part of these 17 weeks after birth and transfer them to the period before birth could significantly reduce the burden and help remove the gap when there is one. However, this is not the only challenge that needs to be addressed.

There are already very good examples that demonstrate the capacity of the industry to support women in the workplace. This is mainly from specific industries. For example, Rio Tinto Coal Australia supports work-from-home arrangements as part of its flexible working policy. The Spanish firm Iberdrola, producer and distributor of electricity, gas and renewable energy, supports maternity and equal opportunities and offers various options and arrangements that not only help women but also promote them in their jobs and leadership.

That brings me to this very point: the need for a national strategy. We need to ensure that Canada is positioned advantageously in a system that is fair for all classes of society. There are many more barriers that currently stop women from fully participating in the workforce, especially in the fields of science, engineering, trades, and technology. They include the hiring process, workplace respect—as harassment and bullying are still more rampant than people believe—work-family conflict due to inflexibility of work hours, and more. In engineering, workplace climate and culture is one of the main factors causing women to leave the workforce. The recent report by the Canadian Apprenticeship Forum also demonstrates the need to change the culture in the workplace due to discrimination. What will be important in the new strategy is to ensure that the low-income earners in particular are not unfairly treated, especially when they have a hard time meeting their needs, including those of their unborn.

Thank you.

11:25 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

Now we go over to President Karen Dempsey of the National Council of Women of Canada, via video conference from Halifax, Nova Scotia. The next seven minutes are yours.

11:25 a.m.

President, National Council of Women of Canada

Karen Dempsey

Thank you.

I'd like to thank the House of Commons Standing Committee on Human Resources, Skills and Social Development and the Status of Persons with Disabilities for the opportunity to speak to the study of Bill C-243.

The National Council of Women of Canada has been the leading national voice of women for the past 124 years. As an organization composed of local, provincial, and national organizations that are closely connected with issues at those levels, we are uniquely qualified to speak to government with suggestions and recommendations that are based on carefully researched and democratically approved policies for improving the quality of life of Canadians.

Our mission is to empower all women to work towards improving the quality of life for women, families, and society through a forum of member organizations and individuals. Gender equality has been an integral component of that. Our policy “Economic Gender Equality Indicators and Gender Analysis”, from 1998, states that “the advancement of women includes understanding their reality and the unique constraints they face”.

Women should not be penalized because they give birth. In 1983—over 30 years ago—we passed policy that addressed discriminatory clauses in what was then called the “unemployment” act, particularly with reference to maternity-related matters. A key part of that policy urged that the time in which maternity benefits could be claimed be made more flexible. This issue, then, has been on our radar for a long time.

Since that time, many improvements have been made, and we were pleased to support MP Mark Gerretsen’s Bill C-243, which addressed a key issue; that is, improving and giving needed flexibility to maternity leave so that women who need to take their leave earlier than usual can do so without suffering a loss of income and creating unnecessary hardship for their families. This bill strengthens maternity benefits to better reflect Canada's changing labour market. The bill stated that women who work in hazardous conditions should be able to access their maternity benefits earlier than normal through a more flexible employment insurance.

The third trimester of pregnancy can be physically challenging, as some women suffer from severe backaches; serious swelling in their feet, legs, and even arms and hands; painful varicose veins; and gestational diabetes. Others suffer from pre-eclampsia, which typically occurs after 20 weeks; it can result in eclampsia, kidney failure, or even death.

While women can take sick leave from the workplace if necessary before accessing maternity leave, the amount of sick leave time can vary significantly. The article “Many Canadians lack sick leave coverage,” from Benefits Canada in 2013, states that a report by the Conference Board of Canada shows that “only a third of employees between the ages of 18 and 24 have any sick days or short-term disability coverage.” The December 2007 article “Paid sick leave has its advantages" by Yosie Saint-Cyr, a lawyer and managing editor from HRinfodesk, states that, “Paid sick leave...is an optional benefit employers may grant to employees”.

An HRInfodesk poll with 501 respondents indicated that 32.7% of organizations gave their employees five paid sick days, 28.9% gave their employees three paid days or less, and 22.2% gave more than 10 sick days. That is why it is so important that the new budget proposes that any woman can begin her maternity leave at 12 weeks prior to her due date.

Women have the right to pursue any profession or trade they wish and not have their participation in the labour force questioned or minimized.

During World War II, women in the western hemisphere were put in jobs that men had always done, for example, building airplanes, and they played an essential part in the war effort. However, after the war, men came home and women resumed their pre-war lives for the most part. There have traditionally been areas of the workforce where women have been under-represented, and that is still the case in many of the trades, the construction industry, engineering, the sciences, etc.

While this is gradually changing, it is vital that there be no barriers to women's participation in those areas that have traditionally been male dominated. That is why this conversation is so important. It is necessary to ensure that pregnancy is not made an issue for women in any job, particularly those in which they are under-represented.

We strongly agree that the greater flexibility that is proposed is necessary and vital and that EI maternity benefits should reflect that. If an employer can accommodate the pregnant employee by finding risk-free work for those in hazardous jobs, that's great. In cases where that is not viable, or if an employee finds it too difficult to continue to work for any reason, then she needs to be able to access maternity leave when necessary without putting herself and her family in a position of financial hardship and distress.

In its guidebook “Pregnancy and Human Rights in the Workplace A Guide for Employers”, the Canadian Human Rights Commission states:

Pregnancy in the workplace is a fundamental human rights issue of equality of opportunity: women should not suffer negative consequences in the workplace because they are pregnant. The Canadian Human Rights Act (the Act) prohibits discrimination related to pregnancy.

Thank you.

11:35 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much.

Finally, from Women Building Futures, former chief executive officer and director, JudyLynn Archer, is coming to us via video conference from Edmonton, Alberta.

The next seven minutes is yours.

11:35 a.m.

Former Chief Executive Officer and Director, Women Building Futures

JudyLynn Archer

Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to speak to this issue.

At Women Building Futures, we work with companies that are engaged in Canada's construction, maintenance, and energy sector, and we work with women like Melodie every day.

I don't mean to repeat any of the wonderful points that were made by my fellow speaker, so my response will focus on a bit of a different perspective in all of this.

Women are Canada's largest under-leveraged human resource asset. By that, I mean that women working full time in Canada, thirty hours a week, earn on average $32,000 a year. It means that half of our workforce in this country are struggling to make ends meet, let alone being able to contribute to our tax base in the way that we need them to. Meanwhile, Canada is losing one-quarter of its very well-paid construction and maintenance and energy workforce. That's about 250,000 tradespeople, again, in one of Canada's highest paid sectors. We are not only losing them, we are losing the considerable collective tax contribution they make to our society.

Together, this is creating an unprecedented opportunity for Canada and Canadian women. Bill C-243 would play a significant role in bringing this opportunity to fruition. This bill would increase access to jobs that pay well. Raising the annual income of women, getting women and their children out of poverty, will help to replace the retiring trades workforce. We need this workforce to continue to attract investment so that we can attract, build, maintain, and operate our projects across this country.

We also need to replace the considerable tax base that Canada is losing to this retiring workforce.

I'm going to give you just one example of the type of result we see at Women Building Futures due to more women coming into this high-paid workforce. Right now, we have an Alberta company that is building a project just outside of Edmonton. This company, North West Refining, contracted with Women Building Futures to recruit and train 40 women as iron workers, scaffolders, and carpenters for this project. These 40 were recruited and trained. They're all working at the refinery and 39 of those 40 individuals are now registered apprentices. The average increase in income for these individuals was 203% on the day of hire. If they had been making $32,000 a year before being hired, they were, on day one of being hired, making $96,000. This changed the lives of these women and their families, including 34 children. Moreover, 20% of these women are indigenous.

The story that Melodie shared with us this morning is very common. Right now in Canada, we have an opportunity before us that we absolutely must act on. We are losing a significant chunk of our workforce in this country. They're paid among the highest salaries. Women are absolutely more than interested and capable of doing this work. Bill C-243 is going to women to come into and work at these jobs, without the fear that was expressed eloquently by the other speakers today.

We need a national strategy that would help Canada reinvest in the women who are already out there working 40 hours a week. They're the perfect recruitment asset for Canada's industry that pays high salaries.

All I can say is, Melodie, thank you for sharing your story and pushing this bill. Thank you to everyone who is speaking today and working towards bringing this bill to fruition, to help women get into these jobs, because it will benefit the women, their children, and Canada as whole. Thank you.

11:40 a.m.

Liberal

The Chair Liberal Bryan May

Thank you very much, and thanks to all of you for your introductions.

We're going to get to questions, but before we do that, I was remiss in not welcoming two guests to our committee. First of all, thank you for being here, Jennifer O'Connell and Gary Anandasangaree.

First up we have Mark Warawa for six minutes. Go ahead.

11:40 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Conservative Langley—Aldergrove, BC

Thank you, Chair, and thank you to the witnesses for some very interesting testimony.

I find it particularly relevant to listen to moms sharing with us their experience of what works and what doesn't. It's also interesting to share with the witnesses that we are just in the last days of a national discussion on a national poverty reduction strategy, and we're preparing a report on that. Melodie, you've shared how you experienced poverty and that social network that is supposed to help you, help moms, and help women. We've also heard from Anna out in Langley. We've heard from both of you what worked and what didn't.

I also want to thank Mark Gerretsen for raising this issue in Parliament, for listening to a constituent and presenting this very important bill.

MP Gerretsen was here a week ago and shared that in the budget, the government is giving 12 rather than the 15 weeks. He suggests that we not focus on that but rather on a national maternity assistance program, which is the second half of the bill, so that will be what my questions relate to.

This question is for Melodie and Anna. If you could give very specific recommendations to this committee, number one, do you support Bill C-243 and that Parliament establish a national maternity assistance program? What are the specific changes that need to be made? I'll just elaborate a little.

I heard that if you've already had a child—Melodie you've had a child, and Anna you have five—if another child comes along and you're not welding or not at work, then there are no sick benefits, no unemployment benefits, or any of these benefits that relate to your job. It makes it extremely difficult, then, from what I'm hearing, for a woman to decide to have another child. It's almost financially impossible.

We scratch our heads, as parliamentarians, asking why aren't Canadian women having more children? Well, maybe this is why. They just do not have the financial support to make that choice, to make motherhood a career choice. I think, Anna, you elaborated how important that is. That is a career choice. I think you shared that. How are you able to make that choice without the financial backing of a network?

Melodie and Anna, if you could both share practical suggestions with this committee on what we need to change to make it practical for women to make motherhood a career choice.

Thank you.

11:45 a.m.

As an Individual

Melodie Ballard

I have three suggestions. One thing that needs to be considered is the idea that a woman could choose to wean herself back to work. The way our EI system works is that either you're using it or you're not. When it comes to pregnancy and maternity, we need to maybe consider a program in which you could partly participate in at work. Restricting a person's ability to make money and their efforts to further the ambitions of their family makes it really difficult to plan for a family when you aren't allowed to wean yourself back to work and better your situation.

Another suggestion I have is to consider, most especially in single-parent families.... I was only allowed to have a 50-week file. I did eventually get that three-month extension, but my son, as a person who only has one parent, didn't get a full year of his life on EI with a parent. The EI benefits were my rights and I had to take some of them early in my pregnancy, but my son, as a citizen of Canada, didn't get a year with a parent. Maybe tackling it from the child's point of view, especially in situations of single-parent families when the second parent can't step in and scoop up the rest of the year, or maybe exceptions could be made for those kinds of families....

11:45 a.m.

Conservative

Mark Warawa Conservative Langley—Aldergrove, BC

Anna, can you elaborate, please?

11:45 a.m.

As an Individual

Anna Nienhuis

Yes. I think that's an excellent idea. I would suggest something similar. Limiting people's ability to make money when they're on maternity leave or other EI benefits, as Melodie said, puts them in a vicious cycle when they're willing and able to work but are not allowed to work and not allowed to make money. If you do, you're penalized and it comes right off whatever else you're making.

As a mom of multiple children, I've gone back to work each time, but for shorter periods each time because I want to be able to be home with those children. Maybe if someone has multiple children, then the hours requirement could be different or could be extended over a longer period of time, so you need fewer hours to get maternity leave. As you say, if you're not even getting maternity in the first place, the issue is not that it's not enough. The issue is that it's not an option for a lot of women to have another child, if they know they won't be getting that support.

I think those are specific changes that could be made, as well as adding a health benefit plan to maternity benefits, as I mentioned. In that way, if a woman is on maternity benefits and they're just a percentage of her wage, she would still able to get that extra coverage and won't have to worry that she can't go the dentist, get mental health support, or get medication for her baby if they have troubles—all those little things that add up and go beyond the scope of what maternity leave benefits will cover.