The Liberal government wants to give victims of domestic abuse five days of paid leave from jobs in federally regulated workplaces – but does not say exactly how that plan might work.
The plan, laid out in Tuesday’s federal budget, builds on a proposal included in the budget last year to allow 10 days of unpaid leave for workers to seek care if they are victims of family violence, and is in addition to a plan to invest an extra $86 million over five years to expand Canada’s Strategy to Address Gender-Based Violence.
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The new proposal would amend the Canada Labour Code to require five of those potential 10 days of leave to be paid, and would apply in cases where either the worker themselves or their child was the victim.
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No specific funding is set aside to forecast how much such a move could cost, and there are no predictions for how many people may use the option once it is enacted.
However, one economist said there could be several challenges in implementing the move even before considering how much it could cost.
“There’s no mechanism that I’m aware of to actually identify those people,” said Randall Bartlett from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and Democracy at the University of Ottawa. “There’s no reporting framework.”
Federal officials said that under the current legislation from last year’s budget, which is not yet law, employers can ask for “reasonable” proof if an employee requests the leave.
However, they do not have to do so, and the legislation does not lay out what would be considered sufficient evidence to warrant the leave or what would happen if a request is turned down.
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Kate McInturff, a senior researcher at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, said the news that part of that leave can be paid is welcome but noted women could be discouraged from seeking it out if obtaining it requires them to disclose details of their abuse to their bosses.
“You would hope that the burden of proof would be low, because obviously if you’re already in a vulnerable situation, experiencing violence in your home, you’re not necessarily going to want to disclose all the details of that to your employer,” she said.
When it comes to implementing that paid leave, officials said the government will have to choose whether to allow the current unpaid 10 days of leave to go into effect and then amend that with an order in council.
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Another option would be to allow the unpaid leave policy to go into effect for roughly a year before the implementation bill for Budget 2018 is passed by Parliament, which would then allow the paid leave policy to become law.
The proposal is one of a number of initiatives contained in Budget 2018 specifically targeting harassment and sexual assault.
Others include plans to create a Centre of Diversity, Inclusion and Wellness within the public service to better support public servants dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace, as well as $50.4 million over five years starting in 2018-2019 to address sexual harassment in workplaces across Canada more broadly.
Roughly half of that, $25.4 million, will be allocated over five years to boost legal-aid funding across the country to focus on supporting victims of workplace sexual harassment.
The other half of that funding will be used to develop outreach programs to inform Canadian workers about their rights and how to access help if they have been harassed at work.
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The #MeToo and #TimesUp movements have turned workplace sexual harassment into a household topic of conversation in recent months, ever since multiple allegations of sexual misconduct toppled Hollywood producer and film magnate Harvey Weinstein in October 2017.
In Canada – and on Parliament Hill in particular – allegations of sexual misconduct have long circulated among the so-called ‘whisper networks’ of women working in shared environments.
Employment Minister Patty Hajdu made a point of referencing the way young women especially use those ‘whisper networks’ to navigate the power imbalances endemic in offices on Parliament Hill during debate on C-65, the government bill introduced last year which seeks to change federal rules around workplace harassment and misconduct.
C-65 will require all federally-regulated workplaces to have policies in place on how to deal with sexual harassment and misconduct, and will require detailed reporting and accounting of how complaints are dealt with by employers in order to try and prevent them being swept under the rug.
Budget 2018 for the first time provides a full cost estimate of what it will take to implement those rules and changes, pegging the total at $34.9 million over five years starting this year, with $7.4 million per year after that.
As well, the government says it will give $5.5 million over five years to Status of Women Canada to work with universities and colleges to come up with a national framework for addressing gender-based violence including sexual assault on campuses.
“Starting in 2019, for those universities and college campuses that are not implementing best practices addressing sexual assaults on campus, the Government of Canada will consider withdrawing federal funding,” the budget reads.
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Exactly how the government plans to define “best practices” and what criteria it would use to actually move forward on withdrawing funds is not included in the vow, which takes aim at the fact that nearly half of the sexual assaults reported each year in Canada take place against women between the ages of 15 and 24.
The government also plans to give $10 million over five years to the RCMP to establish a national unit to review the nearly 25,000 cases of sexual assault its investigators have deemed “unfounded” since 2015.
That money will also go towards creating a training program for force members “to address the problems raised by ‘unfounded’ and create an external advisory committee to guide the initiative.”
An investigation by The Globe & Mail last year revealed a staggering number of sexual assault complaints filed with police in all jurisdictions across Canada are deemed to be “unfounded” each year and are then closed.
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