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City council postpones vote on parental leave

Council voted to bring the parental leave bylaw before its remuneration committee before it makes an ultimate decision.
stock-St. Albert Place DR020
An expert in gender-based political inequality questioned the tendency to characterize being an elected representative as different than work. FILE PHOTO/St. Albert Gazette

St. Albert city council has again delayed a decision on sanctioning maternity and parental leave for city councils. 

During their Sept. 6 meeting, council approved the first and second readings of a parental leave bylaw, but voted to refer the third reading (which would ultimately approve the bylaw) to consideration by council’s remuneration committee, which is set to evaluate how council members are compensated.

Council has been pondering maternity and parental leave for councillors since the Municipal Government Act was updated in 2017, allowing municipalities to pass laws that permit councillors to take parental leave. 

Currently, councillors in St. Albert can be disqualified from office if they are absent for eight weeks in a row without previous council permission. 

Earlier in 2019, Coun. Natalie Joly was critical of approving a parental leave bylaw, emphasizing that being an elected official involves commitment to being present and serving constituents.

During council’s last meeting, however, she said she has had a change of heart. 

“What’s changed since then is I’ve come to realize it was the epitome of bias to assume that my personal experience is reflective of the experience of others,” Joly said. 

Joly urged council to pass the parental leave bylaw. 

“In making a decision about this bylaw today, we’re really making a statement about our values,” Joly said. “If it passes, we’re saying that we’re actively encouraging a wide range of persons to feel supported in running for council … .

“If it fails, it really sends a message that we’re hesitant to invite people with privilege that is different to our own to this table.”

Joly said the bylaw was partly delayed in coming before council due to the COVID pandemic, but noted the delay is also a result of past council decisions. 

“How many times do we have to debate this?” Joly asked. “What is the cost of rehashing this repeatedly, both in terms of staff time and our reputation?”  

The bylaw under council’s consideration would give councillors up to 18 months of absence for parental leave. Most other municipalities with existing bylaws grant up to six months. 

The 18 months was chosen because it's the same maximum time currently offered to city employees, and offered by Canada’s employment insurance program, the city’s chief legislative officer, David Leflar, told council. 

The draft bylaw outlines that during a parental leave or maternity leave, the councillor would be entitled to remuneration from the city on par with a city employee at the same salary level. Councillors are currently paid $51,390 each year. 

Council divided on bylaw 

Councillors Mike Killick and Wes Brodhead expressed a desire similar to Joly to pass the bylaw. 

“I’m amazed that this was not already part of our standard process,” Killick said. 

However, Mayor Cathy Heron, Coun. Sheena Hughes, and Coun. Shelley Biermanski expressed concerns. 

Biermanski said one of the difficulties for her in the decision is “being fair to other council members,” noting a person taking the full 18 months could get pregnant again and take another leave, sitting out the whole four-year term. 

“I see it as being elected and not taking due care and representing citizens to the best of your ability,” Biermanski said. 

Similarly, Heron said being a council member is “not a career.”

“It’s a privilege to sit here, and you do work hard,” Heron said. “I don’t see any reason why you can’t have a baby and continue with this job.”

Joly said assuming others will face the same challenges as those who currently sit on council leans too much on the existing council’s biases. 

“My experience and your experience and Coun. Hughes’s experience as a mom does not reflect everyone, and it’s unfair to say that it does,” Joly said. “I would challenge everyone to really recognize that this bylaw would only really apply to people who need it.”

Ultimately, council voted to refer the third reading (which would ultimately approve the bylaw) for consideration by council’s remuneration committee. 

The committee — which is composed of five members of the public — will weigh in on the bylaw, including potential revisions, before council votes on the third reading. The committee's first meeting was scheduled for Sept. 20. 

According to the committee’s bylaw, recommendations must be presented to administration no later than two years after a municipal election. The last election was held Oct. 18, 2021. 

Joly said she is opposed to the delay. 

“Passing it off sends a message that ‘I’m not sure if I actually want that kind of diversity,’ and that’s not a message I want to send to our community,” Joly said.  

Hughes said the length of time of the leave is her main concern, and noted she would like to have the committee weigh in before council ultimately passes the bylaw. 

“This isn’t about diversity,” Hughes said. “This is about whether or not this type of leave should be granted.”

The motion to refer the third reading passed 5-2, with Joly and Brodhead opposed.  

Bylaws in place in other communities

While St. Albert has stalled in passing its parental leave bylaw, other municipalities in the region have moved forward since the MGA was amended in 2017. 

Recently on May 9, Banff approved a parental leave bylaw for elected officials which grants up to 26 weeks of leave (the equivalent of around six months). 

Other municipalities have passed bylaws which similarly grant up to 26 weeks of leave. Examples include Edmonton (passed January 2018), Spruce Grove (passed October 2019), and Stony Plain (passed May 2021). 

During St. Albert city council’s Sept. 6 debate, Heron noted Edmonton city councillor Sarah Hamilton gave birth and continued campaigning for council in the fall of 2021. After she was elected, Hamilton did not take maternity leave.  

“I’ve seen lots of women get pregnant and have babies and never skip a beat,” Heron said. “That’s what I think the commitment to the job is all about, and I think that’s what residents would hope for.”

In an interview, Hamilton said she had not heard the debate at St. Albert city council, but noted not all experiences will mirror her own.  

“I could go into grisly detail about what enabled me to recover quickly, but I also know everyone’s experience is different,” Hamilton said. 

She said the necessity of campaigning for re-election (Hamilton had previously served from 2017-2021) and joining a new council meant she had to prioritize her commitment to being a councillor. 

“All things being equal, would I have liked to have a little bit more time with my infant son?” Hamilton asked. “Absolutely.”

Option a ‘tremendous gift’

Hamilton said establishing parental leave sends an “important message” for prospective councillors, adding that in Edmonton’s last municipal election eight women and four men were voted in (the previous council had included 10 men and two women). 

“I’m not commenting on their family status or what their personal decisions might be, but I do think that it sends a message that there’s room for you at this table,” Hamilton said. 

Ultimately, Hamilton said she “would never deign to tell another person who is starting their family what they do and do not need.”

“Having the option is a tremendous gift you can give your colleagues,” Hamilton said. “They may not have to take it, they may not want to take it, but if they don’t have an option, then they never even get to make that decision. 

“What we all appreciate is being able to make the decision that’s right for us.”

Assumptions enforce barriers: expert 

Melanee Thomas, a professor in the University of Calgary’s department of political science who researches the causes and consequences of gender-based political inequality, questioned the tendency to characterize being an elected representative as different than work. 

“For me, the question I always ask is, ‘What is it that we think is so different about political work that justifies keeping barriers like no parent leave in place?’” Thomas said. “I can’t come up with a good one, frankly.”

Thomas said arguments that holding political office is non-work act to keep voices out of the political sphere, a limitation she said ultimately hampers how policies are formed. 

“People who have just gone through pregnancies, they will have information about policies that folks who aren’t in those positions might not see,” Thomas said. “It’s important to have these voices in there.”

Increasing accommodations can change some aspects of what is expected from political representatives, Thomas said, but noted this change represents a positive shift in terms of representation and its resulting impacts. 

Ultimately, Thomas said not setting up parental leave for political representatives hampers democracy. 

“It’s saying it’s only appropriate for some people to be representatives, and others can’t,” Thomas said. “That’s not the way it works in a democracy … voters get to pick who they think is going to do the best job.”