A North Saanich councillor hopes her decision to take parental leave will help break down barriers.
“I just want to make sure that this position is available to anyone,” said Coun. Patricia Pearson, whose family adopted a now three-and-a-half month old son in February. She will be off council duties for three months until May.
Public perception of her taking parental leave seven months away from a municipal election played no role whatsoever in her decision, she said.
“We didn’t have a lot of notice (two days) that he would be joining our family,” said Pearson, elected to council in a 2019 byelection. “It has nothing to do with the election. It’s purely based on what we think is best for our family.”
Pearson has not yet decided whether she will run again in the fall. “It was my intention, but now obviously things have changed, so I have to take some time to consider if that is reasonable for me to do at this point.”
She hopes her decision to take a parental leave will help make municipal politics more family friendly, while also drawing attention to remaining barriers. Pearson decided to run in part because she wanted to bring a younger voice to the table. “But that is not possible if there are barriers for people my age to do that.”
Her family began their adoption journey before her decision to run in the byelection.
“But there is really no timeline,” she said. “Coming into the role, I came in with the understanding that there were no barriers to taking a parental leave. Certainly, I spoke to the mayor at the time and council and they had no qualms about it. But I didn’t realize the logistical barriers in terms of there not being a clear policy about that.”
A council maternity and parental leave policy passed by council in fall 2021 was designed to resolve gaps in the Community Charter.
According to a North Saanich report, the charter does not contemplate circumstances where councillors would be on leave due to pregnancy or parental issues. The charter states that councillors are disqualified if they are absent from council meetings for 60 consecutive days, or four consecutive regular council meetings, whichever is longer.
While other parts of the charter prevent councillors from being disqualified from holding office if they were to take maternity or parental leave, North Saanich staff note the charter is “silent on the matter” of parental leave and that it would be “appropriate” for the municipality have a guiding policy.
North Saanich’s policy grants, among other provisions, up to 62 weeks of parental leave in accordance with prevailing employment standards. Councillors on leave may also choose to “participate and exercise their rights and privileges of office,” something Pearson plans to do by attending key council meetings.
Like the district, Pearson wishes to see more certainty from provincial authorities. While disqualification rules do not apply “if the absence is because of illness or injury or is with the leave of the council,” she points to the arbitrary nature of a provision that could leave the fate of councillors in her position in the hands of their colleagues.
“I would love to see it changed, but the province has made it clear that it has no intention of doing that,” she said. “(Provincial officials) would prefer that municipalities do it on their own policies.”
Responding to a UBCM motion, provincial authorities have said local governments “have full authority” to grant leave for a wide variety of reasons.
Pearson acknowledged the benefits of this hands-off approach. “But on the other hand, it leaves a lot of room for not-ideal policies,” she said. “And there are very few municipalities in British Columbia who have a parental policy.”
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