One of the great strengths of Canadian federalism is the scope it allows for provinces to experiment. In education, health care and other social policies, innovations that fill important needs are quickly copied by other provinces. Those that don’t go no further. The latest opportunity to learn from this provincial policy laboratory involves parental leave.
Writing in the current issue of the Journal of Industrial Relations, a trio of Canadian researchers takes a close look at parental leave across Canada. While national figures show slow but steady growth in this policy—and the concept itself is always popular with parents—their investigation reveals a “growing gap” in uptake between Quebec and the rest of the country. So what can the rest of Canada learn from Quebec’s experience? And what does this mean for the future of family policy nationwide?
For most Canadian families, parental leave is accessed through the Employment Insurance system. Parents who wish to give up their job temporarily to raise a newborn at home are thus treated in the same manner as anyone who is involuntarily out of work. The equivalent of 17 weeks full-time work is required to access payments that can last up to 50 weeks—15 weeks exclusively for the mother and another 35 that can be shared between mother and father. While delivering parental leave through EI may offer some basic efficiencies for Ottawa, it has always seemed a strange fit. Unlike job loss, pregnancy is not something most people insure against. Rather, access to parental leave ought to be considered an advantage to society as a whole since it eases the burdens placed on young families, allows infants to spend crucial early-years development time with their parents and maintains workplace attachment for new mothers.
Quebec sought to correct these incongruities when it created its own stand-alone parental leave program in 2006. All Quebec workers now make contributions directly to the Quebec Parental Insurance Plan, and pay proportionately less in EI premiums. This separation allows the province to offer parents a more coherent and generous suite of benefits. The threshold for receiving payments is a modest $2,000 in earnings—substantially below the EI cutoff. There’s no two-week waiting period. The benefits cover up to 75 per cent of lost income, compared to 55 per cent through EI, and can last for 55 weeks. Nearly 90 per cent of Quebec mothers with earnings choose to receive parental leave benefits. Elsewhere in the country, this figure is below 60 per cent.
Such a difference in parental leave rates seems especially relevant given the federal Liberals’ promise to allow parents to stretch their current 12 months of parental leave benefits over 18 months; as a matter of fact, the Conservatives promised the same thing in their election platform. (The Liberals have also mused about reserving some parental leave exclusively for fathers, as is the case in Quebec.) If parental leave is set to change across the country—and its political popularity suggests this to be the case—then we ought to learn from the experience of Quebec and ensure it appeals to the vast majority of families.
Improving parental leave for the rest of Canada will also have the happy result of lowering the pressure on Ottawa to adopt another, less desirable Quebec innovation: national daycare. Quebec-style, unionized, universal daycare is often upheld by advocates as a model the rest of the country should be copying. However, it is expensive, prone to labour unrest and associated with many significant and unpleasant results for children including greater stress, hyper-activity, aggression and crime. Universal daycare is also inflexible and robs families of choice. All things parental leave is not.
Combined with the recent growth in full-day kindergarten outside Quebec, enhancements to parental leave could dramatically alter the political calculus of national daycare. In Ontario, for example, full-day kindergarten now covers children as young as three or four years old, which greatly reduces demand for formal child care for kids that age. At the same time, an expansion of parental leave to 18 months should encourage longer stints and greater prevalence of stay-at-home parenting. Both trends will shrink the target audience for a national child care program and rob it of its political appeal. The Trudeau government’s massive new $23-billion Canada Child Benefit program, which sends cash directly to families with young children to use how they wish, is also making government-funded daycare less relevant to parents. While some families will always have a need for institutional child care, there’s no reason to impose this solution on everyone.
By emulating Quebec’s parental leave program and avoiding its experience with universal daycare, all of Canada stands to benefit from that province’s experiments in family policy.