Toronto city councillor and new father Joe Cressy would prefer to spend his entitled weeks of parental leave at home with his infant son.
At the moment, his wife is taking time off, but both partners are highly dedicated to their careers and it will be his turn soon enough. However, the city’s policy doesn’t fully facilitate business carrying on as usual in his absence.
In 2018, the City of Toronto created a formal parental-leave policy from scratch. While on leave, councillors won’t be replaced by a deputy and their offices will remain open, with staff attending to local matters as they arise. But when it comes to council votes, there’s no plan in place to allow councillors like Cressy to deputize a proxy so constituents aren’t unrepresented if the councillor doesn’t turn up to vote while on leave.
“The expectation here is, sure a city councillor can take leave, but you’re still working,” he says. “In 2020, that’s not an acceptable trade-off.”
The need to address parental leave for politicians is long overdue, says Cressy. If political bodies are serious about encouraging young people, especially women, to run for office, they must offer accommodative parental benefits.
“Notwithstanding what some on Twitter might think, politicians are also human beings and if our parental leave policies are a reflection of our social and political priorities then we need to change the policy at the City of Toronto — and I’m sure in many other governments — if we’re going to be inclusive.”
Cressy has requested a review of the policy, which will go to a vote by the mayor’s executive committee on Thursday. Subsequently, city council will vote on the review next week. If it passes these stages, staff will report on the proposed changes in the spring.
Other governments are grappling with the same issue, says Cressy. Indeed, the U.K. recently established a one-year pilot project to test out allowing members of parliament on parental leave to use a proxy vote. Canada’s parliament just adopted a one-year, fully paid parental leave policy — though, notably, it doesn’t include any provisions allowing parents to vote by proxy.
Another Toronto city councillor, Mike Layton, has two young children, both of whom were born before the new parental leave policy took effect. While he did take a short amount of time off, if he had chosen not to attend votes and meetings, his 120,000 constituents would have gone unrepresented.
“A couple of days after my daughter was born, I had to be at a committee meeting,” he says. “I mean, I could have missed it, but there’s an expectation from my constituents that I am their voice at meetings like this.”
Carving out time for family is especially important for parents working jobs that demand a great deal of time outside a normal nine-to-five schedule, says Layton. While critics might say that attending the most crucial meetings only takes a few days out of parents’ allotted leave, that time is precious, he adds.
“I’m barely seeing my kids this week because I’m at two nights of public deputations and two nights of public meetings. So I race home and see them for 20 minutes and hope that I get to kiss them before they go to sleep.”
While Layton acknowledges it’s a major step to have a parental leave policy in place for city council, as it stands it ignores a critical component of what it means to accommodate parents. There are plenty of valid reasons a politician may have competing priorities on a given day, he adds.
“Just because people run for elected office doesn’t mean they kiss their families goodbye and shouldn’t be given that kind of flexibility,” says Layton. “There are arguments that could be made where, if there’s a sick child and there isn’t a partner that could provide any support, perhaps some allowance should be made; perhaps even with ageing and sick parents.
“Why do we have to so strictly conform to these older notions that if you’re not in your seat, you have no excuse and your residents should go without a voice?”