Before 1971, it was impossible to get paid for maternity or paternity leave in Canada. Women had to make the choice to not go to work (and not get paid) or even to quit the job they had before they gave birth.
In 1971, it wasn’t maternity leave as we know it today. It was unemployment insurance, at 66% and for a maximum of 15 weeks. Today, we can say, “That makes no sense .” And that is what the unions were saying at the time. Negotiations were launched to at least allow women to return to the jobs they had before they took their leave. This guarantee would least give new mothers more security and less stress.
Why were there so many questions about leave for women in general? In 1960, over 60% of Canadian women between the ages of 20 and 30 were not in the workforce, according to an article by the Canadian Labour Congress. When the new guarantee related to jobs and leave was instituted, those figured reversed. By the early 1980s, over 60% of women were considered to be in the workforce. That was good news; a step forward for women.
It was in 1979 that the Front Commun du Québec succeeded in extending the length of maternity leave, changing it to:
- 20 weeks for a birth
- 10 weeks for adoption
- 5 weeks for paternity leave
In 1981, a massive 42-day strike by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers won improvements for all their members across the country. All women with a position who gave birth had the right to 17 weeks of paid leave. Soon the concept of maternity leave separate from unemployment insurance was no longer an anomaly.
That was just the beginning of a huge battle that has brought us to where we are today. Subsequently, the man’s place in this event was also addressed, ushering in discussions about paternity leave and the matter of adoption: “Will there also be leave and guarantees for parents who adopt children and for men?” The answer is yes. The activists succeeded. They fought for justice.
The unions continued to fight so we could have the parental rights we enjoy today. Their sole objective was to allow all workers to bring balance to their professional and private lives. It is easy to forget and take these achievements for granted. But it’s up to us to ensure that these hard-won benefits are not lost.
Today, the battle against justice for maternity leave and parents is not over. Every negotiation we try to come up with a fair and equitable contract for our members. The public and private sectors do not have the same leave rights and that is why we, UCTE, continue to fight for all those who have chosen us as a union.