Giving fathers dedicated paternity leave after the arrival of a baby is a good idea, say experts, but the government must also think about what happens after the first year of a child’s life.
Reaction to news over the weekend that the Liberals are considering adding dedicated time off for dads as part of broader changes to parental leave rule was generally positive. The prime minister, himself a father of three, has expressed his support for the shift.
According to Kathleen Lahey, a tax law professor and the co-director of Feminist Legal Studies at Queen’s University, there are indeed proven benefits to paternity leave, for both parents and children.
“This has the effect of engaging second parents in the early years of taking care of their children,” she said.
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Martha Friendly, Executive Director of the Childcare Resource and Research Unit, said that it’s important to remember paternity leave is just one element of a much broader conversation surrounding childcare in Canada.
“This missing piece is a real childcare policy,” Friendly said.
“I’m glad that they want to address (paternity leave), but unless there’s a really solid national, universal childcare policy when people emerge from it … that’s what’s really needed. That affects people for longer than a year.”
Lahey wholeheartedly agreed, noting that childcare remains inaccessible and unaffordable for too many parents, and is often not available on the terms that modern families require. Parents, and most frequently mothers, will often opt to stay home as their children get older, she said, and end up claiming just a fraction of their regular salaries.
“They’re going to be living at nearly social assistance levels for a period of time because they cannot afford paid childcare to continue in their paid work.”
Two systems, dramatically different results
At the moment, the government of Canada splits employment insurance (EI) benefits for new parents.
- Basic maternity leave tops outs at 17 weeks
- Another 18 weeks of parental leave are made available, which can be taken either by mom or another caregiver
- During that time, the government generally pays 55 percent of a new parent’s income up to a specified maximum. Employers may also offer a top-up on that amount.
The trouble is, not many fathers are taking advantage of the current system. According to Statistics Canada, outside of Quebec just 12.2 per cent of dads claimed or intended to claim parental leave in 2013, a slight increase over 9.4 per cent in 2012. Those statistics haven’t shifted in over a decade.
In Quebec, which has its own parental leave benefits, an extra five weeks are set aside specifically for fathers and they earn up to 70 per cent of their regular paycheck during that period. It makes a huge difference in the number of them who choose to stay home for a stretch, with 78 per cent doing so in 2012. Of those, two thirds take the whole paternity leave.
“Quebec does have father leave, but they have also made parental leave more flexible,” said Friendly, adding that the broader federal program needs to be beefed up to match.
“Even as they extended the duration to a year, basically, it’s poorly paid compared to other countries … I’d love to see parental leave, the whole policy area, really strengthened. And I think that father leave is an important part of it, but it is only part of it.”
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Minister speaks out
Speaking on background, an official in Labour Minister MaryAnn Mihychuk’s office said no final decisions have been made about the form or scope of the government’s changes to the existing federal system, but that Ottawa is prepared to ask “big questions” and would have more to say on the matter soon.
On her way into the House of Commons, Mihychuk acknowledged that Quebec is “way ahead of the rest of the country” and cited the Canada Child Benefit going out to parents as a way to help cover childcare costs.
“It’s much, much more than what was available,” she said. “Is it enough? Having been a single mom, it was a real struggle. So I feel the need, and we’re trying to do the best we can.”
The debate surrounding the length of time parents can take off after the birth of a child is also continuing, Friendly pointed out, with some people suggesting an extension to 18 months. Whatever Ottawa decides to do, she said, it should be based on solid research and hard evidence.
“All of the ministers’ mandate letters said that what they do should be informed by the best evidence.”