You would think that members of Canada’s provincial legislatures would enjoy a fairly progressive workplace—but apparently not. Not a single jurisdiction has developed a clear policy for maternity leave, and in many cases, female members could technically be docked hundreds of dollars of pay for missing sessions to have a baby.
Charlene Johnson, who last month became Newfoundland and Labrador’s first ever MHA to give birth while in office, found that out the hard way. She’ll have to apply for approval for the time she’s missing—and if she doesn’t get it, she could be charged $200 a day for her absence.
Shortly before Johnson had her daughter, the province formed a committee to look at developing guidelines for new mothers. It’s a move that former Manitoba MLA Mary Ann Mihychuk, who had her kids while in office in the ’90s, says is long overdue: “It’s a bit embarrassing. We should have done this decades ago.”
The lack of maternity leave guidelines can be explained, in part, by the fact that members of provincial legislatures are considered to be self-employed. They don’t pay into Employment Insurance, the usual source of parental-leave benefits, and often make their own hours.
Speakers of the country’s legislative assemblies, who are responsible for granting leave, insist that having a baby would always justify absence. But for the handful of women who’ve gone through the process, that’s not good enough. Judi Tyabji, who became the first active MLA in B.C. to give birth in 1992, returned to the legislature three days later. In 2000, the province made its regulations more flexible, but still, she worries that unclear maternity policies may be keeping young women out of politics. “We have to give them a comfort zone,” she says.
Newfoundland’s committee is expected to deliver its recommendations shortly—but not soon enough for Johnson. She will return to work on May 19, after taking off less than a month. Her husband, who works in the private sector, will take parental leave instead.