Screaming about Alberta’s compassionate care leave (Guest commentary)

When compassionate care leave is anything but compassionate

Last month a Sacramento, Calif., amusement park added a ride called the Screamer. This thing takes riders 168 feet in the air, spins them and then drops them face-first towards the ground at more than 100 kilometres per hour.

Talk about a scream. The funny thing, though, is that riders are forbidden from screaming on the screamer. In fact, they are warned that any noise from them will mean they are pulled from the ride. The Screamer riders are told by park employees to muffle their shrieks by placing their hands firmly over their mouths. One teenage rider interviewed at the park stated the obvious: “Don’t have a ride called ‘Sky Screamer’ if you can’t scream while you’re in the air.”

The Screamer on which you cannot scream is a little bit like compassionate care leave in Alberta, which is not a leave and is anything but compassionate.

Compassionate care leave is defined by federal law as “the provision of care to a gravely ill or dying spouse or common-law partner, child or parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild, in-law, aunt, uncle, niece, nephew, foster parent, ward, guardian or a gravely ill person who considers the claimant to be like a family member, who has a significant risk of death within 26 weeks.”

Three years ago the federal government changed the employment insurance (EI) rules to provide people with six weeks of EI in order to provide care to a terminally ill relative. Every Canadian province except Alberta has changed their labour laws to protect the jobs of the people who take this leave. You read that right: in every Canadian province, if you take time off work to care for your dying spouse, parent, or child your job is protected. Except in Alberta.

But who does this policy actually affect? According to an Edmonton Journal article, nearly 5,000 Canadians qualified for compassionate care benefits through the federal employment insurance program in 2005. Of those, 469 were in Alberta. The article goes on to say that “those who study and work with family caregivers say... those numbers are not an accurate measure. (In one survey) 29,600 Albertans reported lowering their hours of work to provide care to a sick family member and 21,500 said they earned less.”

Study after study shows the majority of these caregivers are women. Women are more likely to be the care receivers and more likely to be the caregivers. There is, in the words of Prairie Women’s Health Centre of Excellence, a “differential impact” on women.

The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), in a September 2005 submission to the Employment Standards Review panel, called for a change to Alberta’s Employment Standards Act to include compassionate care leave. It wrote: “Just as we recognize that pregnancy should not force a woman to quit her job, neither should the care of family in emergency or crisis situations.”

The Employment Standards Contact Centre was e-mailed to request an update on the review, and replied by insisting that: “The review is still underway, but no new legislation has yet been passed. To view the most recent press release re: the code review, please visit our website at and click on the link on the left side of the page that says ‘Code Review.’” The press release in question was from May of 2006.

It did mention that compassionate care leave was a suggestion made to the review panel but that no commitment was made. And nothing has been released on the panel since last year. In that year, about 500 Albertans have risked their jobs in order to be with their dying relatives.

It is high time the Alberta government finishes that Employment Standards Review and implements a change in the Employment Standards Act to protect the jobs of Albertans who take time off to care for their dying relatives. Alberta is the last province to do this and there is simply no excuse for it. It is time to raise this important issue from a whisper to a scream.

Lisa Lambert publishes Martha’s Monthly, an Alberta-based online feminist newsletter sent to members once a month. Become a member by signing up at

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