Avoiding a split in the women’s movement

Tuesday 9 March 2004, by Judy REBICK

An issue fundamental to women’s economic equality is threatening to divide women’s groups in English Canada and Quebec.

On January 27, 2004, the Quebec Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the federal government was violating its constitutional role by providing maternity and parental leave as part of Employment Insurance. The court ruled that employment insurance exists only to replace wages for people who lose their jobs for economic reasons, "not for the interruption of employment for reasons related to personal conditions." Their view is that social programs like parental leave belong in the provincial jurisdiction. While the Court did not strike down this provision of the EI Act, its decision could have important legal ramifications if it stands.

This court case was launched by the Parti Quebecois government when it was trying to introduce a more generous parental leave program, which would include self-employed and part-time workers and was seeking its share of the federal money. When negotiations stalled, they went to the courts. Women’s groups and unions in Quebec have been organizing for more than a decade to win better parental leave. So of course Quebec women’s groups are delighted with the Quebec Court of Appeals decision. In English Canada it’s a different story. A new coalition called the Network on Women’s Social and Economic Rights has formed to urge the federal government to appeal the court ruling. In a February 11 letter to Prime Minister Martin the Network states: "The federal failure to appeal would send a very strong signal to all provincial governments and to Canadians generally about your government’s commitment to a federal role in social programs. We wish to make clear that we strongly support the Quebec Law on Parental Insurance and the right of Quebec to put in place its own system of maternity and parental leave as part of an integrated family policy." The letter goes on to encourage Martin to continue negotiations with Quebec.

As in the past with the difference on the Meech Lake Accord, women’s groups in Quebec support provincial jurisdiction over social programs. It is not only a principled support for Quebec’s autonomy within the Canadian state but also that Quebec has provided much more generous social programs than the feds. Even the right-wing Quebec Liberal government plans to go ahead with the more generous maternity and parental leave provisions. In English Canada women’s groups fear with some justification that a further devolution of federal responsibility for social programs on to the provinces would mean a race to the bottom among provinces and even poorer benefits for women. For example, when the federal government gave up its responsibility for ensuring minimal standards in social assistance by abandoning the Canada Assistance Program, welfare rates across the country plummeted and thousands of women who lost the protection of the federal law were thrown off the welfare roles.

These differences led to a split in the women’s movement during the years of constitutional negotiations until the National Action Committee on the Status of Women developed a framework of seeing Canada as three nations and therefore supporting autonomy for both Quebec and First Nations. The position of the Network accepts that framework by supporting renewed negotiations for Quebec to opt out of the federal provisions on maternity and parental leave at the same time as challenging the Court decision.

While such differences can create difficulties, they can also create an opportunity for new co-operation. The Quebec Parental Insurance legislation provides an excellent model to improve maternity and parental benefits in EI. By putting equal pressure on the federal government to negotiate a turn over of funds to Quebec for their program at the same time as lobbying for an appeal of the court decision, women’s groups and unions are demonstrating a solidarity with Quebec. On the other hand, Quebec groups can support demands to improve the EI provisions even though they want Quebec to opt out of them.

I have just finished a book on the women’s movement in Canada and one of the lessons that comes across loud and clear from historic divisions on constitutional questions, is that dialogue between women in Quebec and English Canada is the key to ensuring that natural differences that come from our different locations within the Canadian state don’t lead to antagonistic divisions.

Judy Rebick is editor of rabble.ca

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