Parents whose children fall gravely ill or suffer critical injuries will be able to tap into federal Employment Insurance benefits if they take time off work to help their son or daughter through their ordeal.
The measure, which was included in legislation the Conservative government tabled on Thursday, comes as a relief to parents of children under 18 who have been diagnosed with cancer. Some of them, like 80-year-old Edwina Eddy of Ottawa, have been lobbying for this type of financial support more than three decades.
Ms. Eddy became an advocate for parents of children with cancer after her 17-year-old son Bryan died of myelogenous leukemia in 1976. She and her organization, the Childhood Cancer Foundation, have achieved many things to improve the lives of Canadian families coping with the disease, but it took years to persuade Ottawa that parents needed EI when their children are seriously ill.
"I can't tell you how wonderful it feels," Ms. Eddy said on Thursday after Human Resources Minister Diane Finley said the bill would provide up to 35 weeks of EI benefits to parents of gravely ill or injured children. The Canadian Labour Code will also be amended to protect their jobs during their absence. The initiative will cost about $60-million annually and will help an estimated 6,000 families a year.
A cancer diagnosis inevitably means one parent must take time away from work, Ms. Eddy said. "They have to go and do this journey with their child. It is absolutely necessary. And the families sometimes separate because they can't cope with the financial tsunami that comes next – they can't pay their bills. Some parents have even had to go on welfare."
Sharon Ruth of Oxford Station south of Ottawa has been urging the government to provide more financial support to parents of cancer patients since 2003, when she was told her six-year-old daughter, Colleen, had leukemia.
Ms. Ruth was heartened when Prime Minister Stephen Harper made a 2011 election promise to extend EI to parents of gravely ill kids and to help families of murdered or missing children. She was frustrated when the government followed through earlier this year on the second part of that pledge, but did nothing about the first.
So Ms. Ruth said she was thrilled with Thursday's announcement. "For the first few months after Colleen's diagnosis, we rarely left the hospital, and for the next two years, we spent over 257 days at the hospital in treatment or recovery," she told a news conference organized by Ms. Finley. Ms. Ruth and her husband had to refinance their house.
The disease appears to have been conquered, but Ms. Ruth said she does not want other families to be in the same situation.
"Colleen just turned 16 on Sept. 9. She has been in remission with no sign of cancer returning," she said. "I am standing here with all of you on the brink of what I hope will be revolutionary change to help those families that are in need and most vulnerable."
The government also said on Thursday that parents who suffer a serious illness of their own while collecting parental benefits after the birth of a child will be eligible to receive 15 weeks of EI sickness benefits after their parental payments run out.
That would have helped people like Natalya Rougas, whose case is part of a class-action suit filed against the Canadian Employment Insurance Commission earlier this year. Ms. Rougas was diagnosed with breast cancer a month before her parental leave expired, and although she was still off work having treatments after the payments stopped, her claim for sickness benefits was denied because she was ill while collecting parental benefits.
Ms. Rougas's lawyer, Stephen Moreau, said the law always allowed sickness payments on top of parental leave, and the commission was applying the rules incorrectly. "So obviously, we should applaud clarification," Mr. Moreau said, "but we shouldn't kid ourselves that it is actually necessary."