Did you know that paid maternity leave benefits have only been around since 1971 in Canada? Before that, a new mother had to quit work or return to work quickly if her family depended on her income.
And while the federal government, through the unemployment insurance program, introduced limited 15 weeks of paid maternity leave in 1971 at 66% of a mother’s previous salary, it was only a short time later when unions began negotiating longer paid maternity leave with higher levels of benefits for their members that topped up the portion of salary paid by unemployment insurance benefits. And unions also began negotiating guarantees that women could return to the jobs they held before their maternity leave, paternity leave, and leave for parents who adopted children.
At the beginning of the 1960s just over 30% of women aged 20 to 30 participated in the Canadian labour force. By the end of the 1970s it had doubled to just over 60%, and in 2012 over 70% of young women were participating in the labour force. And today, 70% of mothers with children under five years of age are working.
The labour movement pushed for changes to make maternity leave more accessible, not only in legislation, but also by bargaining better paid maternity leave for its members. And they didn’t stop at just maternity leave. As early as 1979, Quebec’s Common Front, representing government, education and health workers, negotiated 20 weeks of fully paid maternity, 10 weeks leave when parents adopted a child, and five days of paternity leave! In 1981 after a 42-day strike, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers won postal workers across Canada 17 weeks of paid maternity leave. The concept of longer periods of paid maternity leave than was available through unemployment insurance benefits soon became mainstream and expanded across the country.
Unions didn’t stop at maternity leave. Adoption leave, paternity leave, and parental leave – available to either parent – were routinely negotiated with employers. Today, we advocate for better access to quality and affordable child care for all workers – so families can better balance their work and family lives. Access to childcare and early childhood education provide economic benefits to the country, and help boost productivity.
Maternity and parental leave has given new parents the economic stability and valuable time they need to care for their children and support their growing families. Maternity, parental, and other family leaves continue to evolve as the family unit changes with our society.