Justin Trudeau needs to keep his EI promise to sick mothers — soon

Posted on January 4, 2017 in Policy Context

TheStar.com – Opinion/Commentary – Thousands of mothers who have been waiting for the Liberals to keep their campaign promise to pay them the Employment Insurance sickness benefits they were entitled to under the law
Jan. 4, 2017.   By JENNIFER MCCREA

Earlier this fall, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau posed for photos with actress and UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson. Watson praised Trudeau for his work on gender equality and anointed him a “HeforShe youth ambassador,” telling Trudeau: “I can’t wait to see what you’re going to do with that title.”

If the first year of Justin Trudeau’s government is any measure, poor Emma is going to be waiting until the entire Harry Potter series has been rebooted. Because while watching Watson and Trudeau praise each other for the cameras, I thought about the thousands of mothers who have been waiting for Trudeau to keep his campaign promise to them: a promise to pay them the Employment Insurance sickness benefits they were entitled to under the law.

I am one of those mothers. Five years ago, I was 34 and on parental leave with my 8½ -month-old son, when I learned I had breast cancer and had to have a double mastectomy. Luckily, a 2002 change in the EI legislation meant that I would be allowed to collect up to 15 weeks in sickness benefits while I recuperated, and take the rest of my parental leave afterward.

Unfortunately, the EI bureaucracy did not agree. They told me that because I was not available for work while on parental leave, I was not eligible for EI sickness benefits. That’s not what the law said, but they were the ones who wrote the cheques.

I had no choice but to return to full-time work at the end of my parental leave, while still recovering from surgery and suffering the side effects of medication designed to ensure my cancer did not come back. It wasn’t long before I had to cut back to one day a week. And of course, I had not accumulated enough work weeks to qualify for EI. Soon I learned a mother in Ontario had been put through the same frustrating process, and she and her lawyers had fought for and won her sickness benefits at an EI tribunal.

So if the EI bureaucracy knew sick mothers were entitled to these benefits, why were they still denying them to mothers like me? There was no good answer. No one was stopping the bureaucracy from denying the claims, and most mothers didn’t have the time, stamina or money to pursue their individual cases through the EI appeals process or the courts.

That is why Carissa Kasbohm and I launched a class action four years ago, to ensure that every woman who was entitled to these benefits since 2002 would receive them without having to pursue individual complaints or lawsuits. After the class action started, the Harper government did pass clarifying legislation to ensure that EI sickness benefits would be paid to women on parental leave. That was great news for women going forward. But it denied justice to many thousands of women who were eligible for these benefits between 2002 and 2013, and did not get them.

During the 2015 election campaign, we were encouraged by a Liberal spokesperson’s promise — in writing — that a Liberal government would “immediately” end the lawsuit. That was over a year ago. We are still hopeful, but we are getting impatient, not to mention a little curious as to what Justin Trudeau thinks the word “immediately” means.

Not surprisingly, four years of fighting thousands of mothers has left the government with a hefty and climbing legal bill. You and other taxpayers have spent $2.2 million so far, to prevent women from collecting the EI sickness benefits that they paid for and were legally entitled to.

If the government were to keep its promise, that meter would stop. You might even say it would stop “immediately.” Perhaps the government would be more motivated by the political reality that it is running out of time to keep this promise in a way that reflects well on Justin Trudeau. After 12 months, unkept promises can turn an image of sunny ways into one of stubborn ways.

Or maybe the government thinks we will fade away, unable to sustain our nearly five-year-old case against their endless resources. They are wrong. Recently I celebrated five years cancer-free, and will be running five marathons to honour my survival and what it took to get there. My sister plaintiffs and I are not going anywhere, something the Trudeau government should consider as it is scheduling the prime minister’s women-friendly photo-OPS. Every month the government delays keeping their promise to sick mothers, will make each one of those photo-OPS look a lot less feminist.

Jennifer McCrea is the class plaintiff in a national class action against the Government of Canada. She is a mother of two and an avid runner.

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