Amid COVID-19, grieving support bill ‘really hit home’ for MPs, says Jeneroux

This article was published in the Hill Times on March 10, 2021. The original article can be found here.

By Alice Chen

After a year marked by loss, a private member’s bill aimed at extending the time some Canadians can take off after the death of a loved one has garnered “unprecedented” cross-partisan support and co-operation.

Bill C-220, first introduced by Conservative MP Matt Jeneroux (Edmonton Riverbend, Alta.) in February 2020 and reinstated in September after the House returned from prorogation, originally aimed to amend the Canada Labour Code to extend compassionate leave for caregivers with jobs in federally regulated workplaces from one to three weeks.

The bill, as amended during a one-day study on Feb. 25 by the House Human Resources, Skills, and Social Development Committee, has now been shifted from compassionate leave to bereavement leave, Mr. Jeneroux said, as well as locking it down to a standard two weeks of extra time off post-death across the board. The other changes were more administrative in nature and included the addition of a three-month implementation period following royal assent, and a changing of the title.

The change to bereavement leave means that where previously the legislated changes would have only covered caregivers, now included in its scope is support for those who have lost someone in their immediate family to more sudden means, like a car crash or homicide.

According to Liberal MP Anthony Housefather (Mount Royal, Que.), in practical terms, the change would mean that where currently there is bereavement leave consisting of three paid days and two unpaid days off, the bill allows for now the same number of compensated days along with seven unpaid days off.

The cross-party support for the bill is “unprecedented,” said Mr. Jeneroux, especially in regards to the joint Liberal-Conservative amendments made (all the changes were labeled as dual party adjustments), which passed unanimously at the committee.

To come up with what should be changed, Mr. Jeneroux said he worked closely with Mr. Housefather, the parliamentary secretary to the labour minister, collaborating on the amendments. He also noted that in conversations with the NDP and Bloc Québécois, they were on side with the changes.

He said that this support across party lines was because the change makes sense and because many people can relate.

“I think it really hit home with a lot of people, particularly Members of Parliament who said, ‘you know what, it makes sense that we all get together and we show the country what Canada really is, and it’s a compassionate country,’” Mr. Jeneroux said.

‘I hope she’s proud’

Bill C-220, which Mr. Jeneroux was able to table in the first session thanks to an early draw for private member’s business, grew from his own experience with loss.

“It stems from a story with my grandmother and not being able to take time off of work when I was a brand-new employee and the decision to make whether to spend their final days with her or to stay at work,” he said. “I ended up making the unfortunate decision that I regret to this day to stay at work.”

This decision was particularly impactful because of the role his grandma, Jeanne Babcock, played in his life. As a child, they were very close, he said.

“She … often would say that ‘all I need right now is a hug from my favourite grandson,’ and I’d give her a hug and it seemed to make her life better and her world better,” Mr. Jeneroux said.

She died in a long-term care home from a combination of Alzheimers and dementia right after he finished university. When Mr. Jeneroux found out she was near death a few weeks before she passed, he said he spent a lot of time deliberating, making what he called excuses to not go and see her. He didn’t want to ask his employer for the time off, he said, and he was focused on trying to advance up the corporate ladder.

When she did die, he instantly regretted not going to see her.

“I remember just slumping back in my chair thinking, ‘wow, I really regret not being able to go and spend that time with her,’” he said. “I’ll never get to see her again, I’ll never get to hug her again.”

And if he could speak to her today, he would tell her how she was the inspiration for a bill that has united the House.

“[I hope] she’s proud and smiling down.”

While Mr. Jeneroux was willing to share his own personal story, he noted during the committee meeting that grief impacts all people differently and that not everyone will want to return to work too quickly. That’s why Mr. Jeneroux said it’s important to have bereavement supports in place for Canadians.

At the Feb. 25 meeting, Kelly Masotti, vice-president of advocacy for the Canadian Cancer Society, emphasized that the economic value of unpaid caregiving clocks in at $25-billion annually, and that because of COVID-19, these caregivers are feeling increased amounts of burnout, stress, and anxiety.

In the end, Mr. Housefather said the bill is really just a question of logic.

“You need time to process grief and you need time to deal with practical implications after someone dies,” he said.

He added that while he doesn’t know if 10 days is enough, it’s certainly better than five days or none at all.

The unity around this bill was welcome, said Mr. Housefather, which was echoed by Conservative MP Stephanie Kusie (Calgary Midnapore, Alta.).

For Mr. Housefather, politics is too aggressive, with unity around this bill welcome, given that he’s always tried to go for a “pragmatic” approach across party lines.

All parties recognized the benefits of this bill and that it’s a good example of coming together on good legislation, Ms. Kusie said.

“When there is reasonable legislation with programs that help Canadians, we can and do work together, so it doesn’t have to be divisive all the time.”

Lawyers and advocates say the changes are welcome

Joshua Lerner, associate lawyer at Rosen Sunshine, echoed this sentiment, particularly in the appeal of the bill.

He said that given the scale of the change from five to 10 days off, the legislation is tempered in reach, and “palatable for all parties.”

He also said that it’s a “welcome sign that governments and employers and employees are recognizing the importance and value of giving people that time to grieve and care.”

He noted that it was unusual for a Conservative to push forward a bill that arguably increases spending on benefits and resources, but the fact that the bill has “sailed through” the legislative process with unanimous approval at second reading indicates there is a lot of support for it.

“It strikes a perfect balance, where it’s not reinventing the wheel,” Mr. Lerner said.

He said he also appreciated the concrete structure, praising it for encouraging people to use their time off without fear, where he said more amorphous policies tend to result in workers not taking the optional bereavement provisions.

According to Oyeyinka Oyelowo, a lawyer at Yinka Law, the bill addresses some of the health issues that pervade the process of grieving, by giving the bereaved more time to alleviate mental health concerns.

“By extending the amount of leave that an individual has under the Canada Labour Code when they’re experiencing grief, what this bill does is directly address some of the disability-related issues that arise when a person loses a loved one,” she said.

Given the many detrimental effects of grief, she said the bill focuses on addressing the reality of dealing with tragic circumstances, which is important.

“I think that the sooner the government can approve and get this piece of legislation through in a timely manner, I should say is the right thing to do,” said Laurel Gillespie, CEO of the Canadian Hospice Palliative Care Association.

Ms. Gillespie had suggestions on what more could be done, especially given the potential long-lasting mental health impacts of COVID-19 loss over the next decade.

Specifically, she said there should be more research done into palliative care, grief, and bereavement.

Another idea Mr. Jeneroux raised was the creation of a national grieving strategy.

Regardless of what future changes might look like, Mr. Jeneroux said caregivers should be an important factor.

“We can’t lose sight of them, even though this is all good and will include them, recognizing caregiving is important,” he said.

Caregivers are an invisible workforces without adequate support, and though the bill is a good first step, there’s still much for the government to do, said Ms. Gillespie.

“There’s a lot of opportunity and room to fill some of these gaps, reduce some of that fragmentation in government, and the federal government showing this kind of leadership will have a positive impact across the country.”