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Montreal mom fights for the EI benefits she never received: ‘It’s time things change’

Laurie Chalifour-Racine and her infant son in November, 2016. Courtesy Laurie Chalifour-Racine

Laurie Chalifour-Racine was just a few months into her paid maternity leave from a Montreal-area financial institution when she got a call from her boss that she hadn’t anticipated.

“My supervisor called and mentioned that the whole team was being laid off,” she said.

The call came at the end of the year, sometime in December 2016 when Chalifour-Racine’s baby was around two months old. Her newborn had just undergone surgery and Chalifour-Racine was still nursing him.

“I was a bit taken aback,” she recalled. “I didn’t really know what were my rights and what was going to happen to me.”

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Chalifour-Racine said she made several phone calls including to Service Canada and received very little information. She didn’t even know if she would be eligible for Employment Insurance, despite having worked at the same bank for a few years before getting pregnant.

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Chalifour-Racine said she was told she should apply for EI anyways and could find out that way if she would qualify.

That’s what she ended up doing after trying unsuccessfully to find a new job in a bank once her maternity and parental leave ended in August 2017.

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“A few weeks later, I received a letter at home saying that I was not eligible due to lack of hours,” she said.

The reference period to qualify for EI in Canada is 52 weeks. During that time frame, Chalifour-Racine wasn’t at work earning an insurable income but at home taking care of her new baby.

“Most women, when they go on maternity leave, have no idea that they put themselves in a financial risk,” she said.

“Nobody tells you that if you lose your job, you’re facing nothing. You hope you have somebody to help you financially or you have some saving because you have nothing in front of you.”

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After a few more phone calls, she was told that if she wasn’t satisfied with the decision on her EI benefits she could contest it, but had no idea how to go about doing that.

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With some more digging, Chalifour-Racine was eventually directed to Mouvement Action Chômage (MAC) — an advocacy group dedicated to defending the rights of the unemployed.

Upon first contact with the group she was devastated to learn there wasn’t really much they could do for her.

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She was told that under the Employment Insurance Act there are only four exceptions when the reference period for qualifying is not 52 weeks, but 104 weeks. Being pregnant and giving birth is not one of them.

“I’m like, this is not possible that no one ever did anything about this,” she recalled thinking.

She thought maybe there was a class-action suit looking into the issue and set about making calls to all sorts of women’s organizations. While supportive, she said many couldn’t offer much in the way of assistance.

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That’s when Chalifour-Racine got a call back from MAC and a meeting was set up with the group’s lawyer Kim Bouchard.

Of that phone call she remembers, being told: “We’re just going to fight with you. That’s enough … we won’t take it anymore.”

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Soon enough, an action plan was drawn up and five other women with similar stories joined the cause.

Some of the women in the group were denied EI benefits because like Chalifour-Racine, they hadn’t accumulated enough insurable work hours during the reference period, while others had maxed out their benefits. The Employment Insurance Act limits the combination of unemployment benefits and special benefits to a maximum of 50 weeks.

Their case was eventually heard by the Social Security Tribunal of Canada — an administrative tribunal that oversees disputes over the interpretation and application of laws and regulations.

Bouchard said the goal was to bring attention to some real problems with the law that disproportionately affect women and lead to the feminization of poverty.

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Bouchard highlighted another appellant in the case who she described as a single-mother of three who lost her only household income.

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“How can she pay the daycare when she has no more money?” Bouchard said. “She didn’t have the chance to look for a job.”

“When you have regular benefits, it’s the time for you to look for a job because we say you are able to work … on a maternity leave, you have to take care of children and take care of yourself.”

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Chalifour-Racine said for her, it’s about getting the same protection for new mothers as any other worker.

Specifically, she would like to see the reference period extended to 104 weeks and the possibility to extend combined benefits beyond 50 weeks.

While the fight started some five years ago, it’s not over yet.

In January 2022, the Social Security Tribunal handed the women a victory, agreeing that some sections of the Employment Insurance Act violated women’s constitutional rights to equality under the law.

That victory, however, was short-lived.

The Canada EI Commission sought leave to appeal the decision in February, saying several legal errors had been committed during the proceedings.

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“I was a bit disappointed, I can’t lie. But I guess we were expecting it.” Chalifour-Racine, said. “We would have done the same thing if we would have lost.”

The tribunal has yet to decide whether it will allow the appeal to go ahead.

Bouchard, however, said in the end, the tribunal’s decision isn’t what matters.

“We want universal protection for all women, without discrimination,” she said. “If the government chooses to change the law, that would be a win.”

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Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough has been tasked with revamping the decades-old EI system.

In the past, Qualtrough has said she wants to make it easier for mothers using the EI program, particularly eyeing rules that make it difficult for some to get their full parental leave.

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A Global News interview request with the minister was declined and Employment and Social Development Canada spokesperson Maja Stefanoska said the department wouldn’t comment on the commission’s decision to seek an appeal as the matter was still before the tribunal.

Stefanoska, however, reiterated the government’s desire for change.

“This decision does not change the Government of Canada’s commitment to modernizing our Employment Insurance system,” Stefanoska wrote in an email.

“Minister Qualtrough has been meeting with workers, employers, union reps and others partners from across the country to hear how we can reform this system to ensure it meets the needs of all workers, including working mothers.”

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Bouchard said she’s hopeful the Canada-wide consultations, which are set to resume in the spring, will bring forth meaningful change.

“We cross our fingers,” Bouchard said.

And if doesn’t, Chalifour-Racine said she and the other women aren’t ready to give up yet.

“We’re ready to fight this till Supreme Court if we have to,” she said. “Really, it’s time things change.”

– with files from The Canadian Press’ Jordan Press

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