Mr. Speaker, I am thankful for the opportunity to speak in support of Bill C-243, an act respecting the development of a national maternity assistance program strategy and amending the Employment Insurance Act. My hon. colleague has done a fine job with this bill, and I want to commend him for that. This is an incredibly important topic. I am glad that he has focused on it, and has given me the opportunity to speak to it.
In particular, I was impressed to learn the story behind this bill. It was inspired by the story of a female welder in his community. He listened to the concerns and personal experiences of his constituent, Melodie, and took action by presenting a solution in the form of a private member's bill. That is how politics should be done. We are elected to this House to represent our constituents and the issues they bring forward, and this bill is a perfect example of that.
The purpose of the bill is to remove barriers to women's full and equal participation in all sectors of the labour force. This is absolutely fundamental to the principle of gender equality. The provisions in this bill would greatly benefit current and future women who work in the skilled trades: construction, engineering, resource extraction, manufacturing, and many other fields.
This is why it should be no surprise that it has been supported by a diverse list of stakeholders from across the country, and I would like to take this opportunity to name a few. They include women's advocacy groups, such as the National Council of Women of Canada, the Canadian Women's Foundation, the Canadian Federation of University Women, the NSERC Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering, the Office to Advance Women Apprentices, Women in Science and Engineering Atlantic, and Women Building Futures.
They all recognize that this bill is a positive change toward achieving gender equality. The Canadian Women's Foundation, for example, said that this bill advances women's equal participation in all sectors of the labour force and helps to ensure that the decision to become a parent does not exacerbate women's economic inequality. This is indeed a positive step to improve gender equality in Canada.
Representatives of the construction, skilled trades, and engineering community have also come out to enthusiastically support this initiative, including the Canadian Construction Association, Canada's Building Trades Unions, Engineers Canada, Women in Work Boots, Engineers without Borders, Canadian Welding Association, National Trade Contractors Coalition, and Canadian Apprenticeship Forum.
Collectively, these groups represent tens of thousands of members from across the country. Their support stands as a true testament to how this bill is resonating with stakeholders. The bill has earned this support because its objectives are very clear. Overall, it seeks to prevent a situation where a woman has to choose between having her dream job and having a family. This is an objective that I and, I am sure, all members of this House can support.
It achieves this important goal in two parts, which together address both an immediate issue and the need for a long-term, comprehensive maternity assistance strategy. The first part proposes a modest change to the Employment Insurance Act that would greatly improve the flexibility of maternity benefits.
In particular, Bill C-243 proposes an amendment to the El Act which would allow women, like Melodie, who work in dangerous jobs, to begin their 15 weeks of El maternity benefits as early as 15 weeks before their due date. This is seven weeks earlier than the current rules permit. The other component of maternity leave, the 35 weeks of parental benefits, is effectively unchanged by this bill. These hours would still be available once the child is born, and are still available to both parents to use as they see fit.
The combined 50 weeks of total benefits does not change in length or cost. Instead, women in dangerous jobs would have the opportunity to use more of their existing hours during their pregnancy rather than after the child is born, if this is something they choose to do.
This measure would not expand the number of maternity weeks or the amount of benefits that one is entitled to. Similarly, it would not reduce the eligibility threshold for receiving benefits.
Getting a slightly earlier start to maternity leave would help women who are currently in the terrible situation of having to choose between working in an environment that might be hazardous, and protecting the health of their unborn child. This is a decision no one should have to make, and I am glad to see a bill that would make EI flexible enough to accommodate these situations.
Easing the rules on when someone can begin their maternity leave is a good start, but it obviously does not remove all of the barriers to women's equal participation in the labour force. That is why I am pleased to see that the bill also calls on the Minister of Employment to consult with Canadians and provincial stakeholders on the prospect of developing a comprehensive national maternity assistance strategy.
The bill lays out some specifics for what these consultations would cover, including an assessment of the demand for such a program, existing programs, potential costs and benefits, and any legal, constitutional, or jurisdictional implications.
If the bill passes second reading, which I hope it does, these are areas that the committee could look into. As chair of the HUMA committee, I would be interested in studying these areas, and hearing from my colleagues on the committee to see if there are other areas that we could add to this list.
The bill purposely leaves the parameters of the study broad. It calls on the government to study the issues of maternity assistance without prescribing what the outcome should be.
In summary, the issue identified by the member is a serious and important one. The idea of a national maternity assistance program deserves to be studied, and that is exactly what the bill calls on the government to do. I agree wholeheartedly with the objectives of both parts one and two, and urge my colleagues to support the bill, so that they may be studied further at committee.
When we think about gender equality in the workplace, we should not limit that decision to politicians, lawyers, and the business world. We need to recognize that many women want to be welders, construction workers, or engineers. Every career option should be open to all Canadians whether they are a woman or a man, and no one should have to choose between having a family and having a job.
Our labour market is changing and we need to take a hard look at our EI system, and see if it is keeping pace in 2016. Frankly, in 2016, it is simply unacceptable that the decision to have a family should be a barrier or financial disincentive to a woman entering her chosen profession. It is shocking and disturbing to think that this decision could lead to financial hardship to the point of losing one's home. Clearly, this happens and, in fact, it did happen in the case that inspired the bill.
In mid-2014, Melodie was working as a welder in Kingston, Ontario, when she became pregnant. She consulted with her medical practitioner, and they agreed it would be unsafe to continue welding during her pregnancy as her work environment would be unsafe for her unborn child.
My colleague has put forward this bill to prevent this from happening to others, and I am proud to strongly support him and Bill C-243, a national maternity assistance program.
I hope all members will think hard about Melodie's compelling story, and how this important bill can improve gender equality throughout Canada and in their communities.