Erez Aloni is an associate professor at the Peter A. Allard School of Law at the University of British Columbia.
Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation and a gay man, recently took parental leave to be with his newly adopted twins. Responding to Mr. Buttigieg’s leave, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson mocked: “Paternity leave, they call it. Trying to figure out how to breastfeed.”
Unlike in the United States, Canada’s parental leave system is available to most workers, including fathers. But before you dismiss Mr. Carlson’s comments as just another instance of U.S. benightedness, the fact is that the Canadian system does, in its own way, embed his view: that fathers are only meant to be secondary caregivers, and that adoptive and male same-sex parents should not be entitled to the same benefits as biological and different-sex parents.
Canada’s system for paid leave has a private and a public aspect. Its publicly funded policy is distributed through Employment Insurance (EI) and involves two types of leaves.
First, persons giving birth are entitled to “maternity leave” for 15 weeks (Mr. Buttigieg and his partner, Chasten, would not be entitled to this benefit). Second, any parent (birth or not) can take 35 weeks of additional “parental leave.” If both parents share the leave, they can enjoy an extra 5 weeks, for a total of 40 weeks of parental leave.
This means that couples without a birth parent (male same-sex couples, adoptive parents, or parents who relied on surrogacy) can take a maximum of 40 weeks (parental leave), while couples that include a birth parent can take up to 55 weeks (parental leave plus maternity leave).
Along with the publicly funded system, the private system is at least as important. Many employers provide supplemental unemployment benefits – commonly known as “top-ups” – additional funding on top of what EI allots to cover most of the remainder of income lost from taking leave. EI provides a maximum of $595 a week, or $2,380 a month – while the average rent of a 2-bedroom apartment in Toronto is $2,628. The parallel private system serves to bridge the gap.
Almost always, this top-up system piggybacks on the EI provision of maternity and parental leave. Many employers supplement only the maternity leave period. The result is that couples without a birth parent do not receive the same benefits that most different-sex couples (in which one gave birth) receive.
Consider the leave policy of UBC, my workplace, as a typical example. A faculty member who gives birth is entitled to a top-up of 95 per cent of salary for 16 weeks under “maternity leave” and an additional 10 weeks of top-up in “parental leave,” for a total of 26 weeks at 95 per cent of salary. But when a faculty member is not a birth parent, they can only enjoy 10 weeks of fully subsidized leave with their newborn.
I do not claim that non-birth parents are similarly situated to birth parents. It is undeniable that such parents need time to recover from the stress of the birth. But all parents – birth or adoptive – should have the option of more than 10 or 15 weeks away from work to be with their new child. A child’s first year is a vital time for forming parental attachment, which has long-term, positive consequences on the child’s well-being. Moreover, couples without a birth parent must spend a great deal of their income in order to become parents (through surrogacy or adoption). Receiving less financial support increases the income gap between them and other parents.
The issue is personal to me: last year, my partner and I were fortunate to welcome a baby into our lives, relying on a surrogate. My partner’s employer provides top-up only to birth parents. With $2,380 a month paid leave by EI, it was nearly impossible to maintain a household in Vancouver, resulting in my decision to take only 10 weeks leave. This puts parents like me at a disadvantage compared with our birth-parent colleagues, who get 6.5 months of leave with nearly full salary. Of course, I was privileged to get a top-up at all: it’s a fundamental problem that most Canadians are dependent on employers to give them this benefit, as this exacerbates economic inequality.
Whether we want to admit it or not, the Canadian system assumes that leave should be primarily for parents who give birth. The system provides economic incentive for one parent, usually the pregnant person, to adopt the role of the main caregiver and for the other parent to operate only in a supportive role. Same-sex fathers and adoptive parents, like me, are left to fall through the cracks.
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