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The Hon. Charlie  Watt, O.Q. Appointed to the Senate by the late former Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Senator Charlie Watt represents the province of Quebec and the Senatorial Division of Inkerman.

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Maternity and Parental Benefits—Inquiry

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Statement made on 24 March 2011 by Senator Jane Cordy

Hon. Jane Cordy:

Honourable senators, I would like to speak today in support of Senator Callbeck's inquiry into the elimination of the Employment Insurance two-week waiting period for maternity and paternal benefits.

It is no secret that women have faced barriers and limitations in contributing to, and benefiting from, our economy. As women's participation in the labour force has increased, so too have maternity and parental benefits been expanded to provide better economic security to parents and families.

In 2001, the Liberal government increased the maternity and parental benefits to 50 weeks. That increase was a huge benefit to families. Not only do maternity and parental benefits provide a vehicle for women and families to maintain some financial security following the birth of a child, research shows that allowing parents to spend more time with young children also has beneficial long-term effects on the children themselves.

Another important change to the Employment Insurance program to benefit new parents was that, as of January of this year, self-employed Canadians now can opt voluntarily into the Employment Insurance program. Those who choose to pay into the EI program will be entitled to the same maternity and parental benefits that all paid employees have access to. That change has not only provided financial security to new parents but it has also removed a major barrier for women entrepreneurs and, hopefully, it will help promote more women entrepreneurs in the Canadian economy.

Our current national program of maternity and parental benefits provided through the EI program provides up to 55 per cent of a parent's employment income after the birth of a child. A total of 50 weeks are available for support. The proposed elimination of the two-week waiting period would not extend the 50 weeks of benefits; it would just allow the parent to apply for their benefits two weeks earlier. This change would not increase the amount in benefits that the parent would receive.

It was argued that two short weeks of wait time without income does not seem unreasonable. For most new parents, that may be the case. However, honourable senators, sadly, too many Canadians live in a low-income situation. Single-parent families are four times more likely to live in a low-income situation than two-parent families, and 80 per cent of single-parent families are headed by women.

These Canadians will benefit the most from this change, where a gap of two weeks, unfortunately, can be financially stressful for low-income new parents, and especially single mothers.

I would like to reiterate my support for Senator Callbeck's inquiry. This change requires no additional funding and can be easily accomplished through an administrative change. The removal of the two-week waiting period for maternity and parental benefits will help to assist those Canadians who need it the most. Low-wage workers do not have savings to rely on, and allowing those expecting a new baby to start maternity or parental benefits without waiting for two weeks makes sense.

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