Canadian parents are eligible for maternity and parental benefits, administered through the federal government’s employment insurance system. In practice most people refer to both as ‘maternity leave’, particularly when only the birth mother is receiving them. However, there are important distinctions.
Maternity benefits are paid for 15 weeks, and only a birth mother is eligible to receive these benefits. Even surrogate mothers, or those whose babies do not survive, may apply. Parental benefits are paid for 35 weeks, and partners and adoptive parents may receive these benefits as well. If parents share benefits, the total between them may not exceed 50 weeks. In addition, there is a 2-week waiting period on the shared claim, so the total time away from work is 52 weeks.
There are some exceptions to this. In order to receive maternity or parental benefits you must qualify for employment insurance. In general, this means that you have 600 hours of insured income during the previous 52 weeks, or since your last leave. The self-employed can’t receive benefits, since their hours are not insurable (although Stephen Harper has proposed that should change).
Edited to add – That has now changed. See my article Maternity Leave Eligibility for the Self-Employed.
Maternity and parental benefits do represent a significant drop in income for most families. You receive only 55% of your insurable earnings, up to a maximum of $447 a week (and $0 for the 2-week waiting period). Some employers do offer supplemental benefits for all or part of the leave, but I don’t think this is the norm. There also may be conditions applied to supplemental benefits in some cases.
Edited to add – For claims established Dec. 27, 2009 or later, the maximum benefits have increased to $457 per week.
Canada compares pretty favourably to other countries. While our maternity and parental leave policies are not the very best, we’re competitive on the global stage. If you’re curious to compare for yourself you can find some articles here, here, and here.
Why should we care about maternity and parental benefits? And why should we, as taxpayers, foot the bill? Because generous maternity benefits increase the birth rate (see here and here and even here) and breastfeeding rates (read this and this). And because we want our children and families to be happy and healthy. Jacob is almost 12 weeks old, and leaving him now to return to work would be very difficult for me. Because I receive maternity benefits I don’t have to make the economic decision to return to work before my child and I are ready. And that’s a very good thing.