It was seven years ago, but Kathy MacNaughton says the image is burned into her brain — her 50-year-old husband David, laying laminate flooring to earn extra cash while he was dying of cancer.
“It was horrific for him, it was horrific for me, for everyone around us,” MacNaughton told Global News from her office in Stellarton, N.S.
“He should have been living life to his fullest, he should have been enjoying it and certainly not worrying about where the money was going to come to pay the truck insurance.”
David died on Aug. 4, 2014, eight months after being diagnosed with esophageal cancer. It was two months after his employment insurance sickness benefits ran out, which only provided him with 15 weeks of paid leave.
Since then, MacNaughton has become a fierce advocate for an extension of EI sickness benefits, lobbying both her provincial member of Parliament, Central Nova’s Sean Fraser, and the federal minister of employment.
If her husband had only lied, she explained, and claimed regular EI benefits instead of sickness benefits, he could have received up to 45 weeks of paid leave.
“I told him, this is not right and I’m going to change it. It’s been a long seven years,” said MacNaughton.
In 2019, Justin Trudeau’s Liberals campaigned on a promise to extend EI sickness benefits from 15 weeks to a minimum of 26 weeks, but to date, no such change has been realized.
MacNaughton is calling on the federal government to keep its word and fund the changes in its upcoming budget for the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
“I feel that if this goes through — it sucked right up to today — but once it’s gone through, he didn’t die in vain. One thing good came out of him dying.”
Her calls are supported by the Canadian Cancer Society, which recently commissioned a poll from Ipsos Reid that revealed 88 per cent of respondents support an extension of the EI sickness benefits to at least 26 weeks and 82 per cent would support paying an extra five cents out of every $100 they earn to fund that increase.
“We were hopeful that it would be in the budget last year, but obviously with COVID-19 that completely changed the way government was prioritizing their issues,” said Helena Sonea, senior advocacy director for the Canadian Cancer Society. “We completely understand that, so we’re hopeful to see it in this upcoming budget in the next couple of weeks.”
Alec Stratford, executive director for the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, agreed that an extension of EI sickness benefits is a pressing government matter.
“We know very clearly that it is very easy to find yourself in poverty anywhere in Canada and oftentimes this can start with a disability or a sickness or an illness,” he explained.
“An extension of the social safety net through EI must happen and must occur because again, we often forget and we often have this vision that somebody who lives in poverty was there because of some kind of moral deficit or inability within themselves to pull themselves up and work.”
Fraser, who has spoken passionately about the cause in the House of Commons, said extending EI sickness benefits is a matter of “when, not if.” He couldn’t promise the change would be funded in the next federal budget but said he was “optimistic” it would come sooner rather than later.
“I know I’m going to be standing next to Kathy shoulder-to-shoulder until this particular policy gets done,” he told Global News from his home in New Glasgow, N.S., on Saturday.
He thanked MacNaughton for her advocacy over the years and said the party committed to the change in 2019 because it targeted “gaps in the social safety net.” It has been on the to-do list ever since then, he added.
“To individuals who have an idea that you can base on your own lived experience, don’t be shy about approaching your member of Parliament… This whole experience for me has really demonstrated that notwithstanding whatever flaws our system may have, it can work.”