CBC by Souhila Baba 11 December 2019
Mothers should not be police officers.
This might as well be the message that recent court decisions on pension plans for RCMP officers are sending to the Canadian population. This week the Supreme Court of Canada will weigh in.
In 1975, women gained the right to join the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) as police officers. Yet, more than 40 years later, they still experience significant barriers to a lengthy and fulfilling career as part of Canada’s national police organization.
While the number of women in policing in Canada is rising, they still represent only a fifth of all officers.
Police organizations are attempting to tackle this issue by actively recruiting more women. For its part, the RCMP notably brought in Vaughn Charlton, its director of gender-based-analysis-plus, from Status of Women Canada in 2017.
However, a key consideration of how to best support and retain women who are already in uniform is being overlooked.
Indeed, for women officers, how they are supported as mothers is directly related to their mental health in their job. In other words, supporting women in their dual roles as police officers and mothers is pivotal in order to both promote their careers in policing and ensure their wellbeing.
However, policing has a long history of being male-dominated work, which has led to a police culture of hegemonic masculinity that has yet to catch up with the times. Canadian police women report feeling that having dual identities, being both police officers and mothers, is seen as a liability rather than an asset by their organizations.
This concern is at the core of a legal argument in front of the Supreme Court on Dec. 12. In Fraser et al. v AG (Canada), legal advocates on all sides are debating the financial consequences of women reducing their work hours to raise a family.
The age-old question of whether or not “women can have it all” is addressed in this case that deals with a disagreement over pension benefits. The claimants — former RCMP officers Joanne Fraser, Allison Pilgrim, and Colleen Fox — reduced their working hours after having children, participating in a job-sharing program offered by their employer that allows two people to share a single full-time position.
Under other work arrangements, such as a leave of absence, RCMP employees can buy back their pension contributions for the years when they were not working full-time, giving them access to full benefits in retirement. However, this option is not available to employees who have chosen job-sharing.
As it happens, the job-sharing option is overwhelmingly used by mothers opting to work part-time to raise a family.
The message this sends is simple: you can work and have a family, but you’ll have fewer benefits.
In front of the Supreme Court, the claimants will argue that the law allowing for these reduced benefits infringes on their equality rights guaranteed by s.15(1) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, as it overwhelmingly affects women officers who are reducing their working hours to raise a family.
Both the Federal Court and the Federal Court of Appeal rejected this claim for slightly different reasons. But ultimately, both courts found that the distinction between job-sharing and other types of work arrangements within the RCMP was not made because claimants were women and mothers, but rather was based on the fact that they were part-time employees.
Both courts missed a crucial point: the only reason the complainants were part-time employees was because they were mothers.
The courts didn’t adequately take into account the reality that women are still doing most of the care of children today, despite expert evidence at the hearings supporting this. This leaves women officers feeling as though they are clocking in to a second shift when returning home from their job, making it difficult to maintain a full-time work schedule.
In effect, by refusing to recognize the harm caused by the no-buy-back pension plan clause in its job-sharing option, the RCMP offers only two choices to mothers if they don’t want to be discriminated against:
- Work full-time and forgo caring for your children.
- Care for your children full-time and forget about being an RCMP officer.
That’s because working part-time to raise your children inevitably means you will be treated differently than other officers. This limits their access to a fulfilling career within the RCMP, and discriminates against them on the basis of motherhood.
The claimants in this case are all women who chose to stay in the RCMP, albeit on a part-time basis, in order to raise their families. Invisible in this case are the women who leave their jobs entirely to be able to care for their children, due to the lack of support from the organization.
In a society that strives not to limit or control women’s bodies, choices, and opportunities, how can the RCMP and the government justify policies that police a mother’s ability to have a fulfilling career, and deny them the job benefits that their fellow officers enjoy?
By not fully taking into account the realities of women officers with young families, the RCMP cannot claim to be a welcoming profession for women today.
Souhila Baba is a law student at McGill University.