sexism in the child-care debate: it's worse than i thought

A few weeks ago, when Human Resources Minister Diane Finley made some horribly offensive comments about working parents, I noted:
I find it shocking how this discussion in Canada focuses almost exclusively on working mothers. I was so accustomed to hearing "working parents" in the US that when I moved here, I was really taken aback by the difference. To me, this is akin to seeing the choice of "Miss" on Canadian forms, or "Dear Sir or Madam" instead of "To whom it may concern". But those phrases, although important, are largely symbolic. The unquestioned assumption that women choose between staying home or earning income, while men do not make similar choices, should have been retired at least 30 years ago.

Little did I know, these assumptions about gender and child care are actually written into Canadian law! Perhaps Canadian readers already know this, but when I inadvertently discovered it a few weeks ago, I was shocked.

In my Research Methods class, we had a guest lecture by Melissa Fritz, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. Fritz is examining the language used in government policy documents, specifically child care policy. Her talk described her methods of analyzing Hansard transcripts, but I got stuck on the content of her research.

Fritz pointed us to Canada Revenue Agency and the Universal Child Care Benefit:
The Universal Child Care Benefit is designed to help Canadian families, as they try to balance work and family life, by supporting their child care choices through direct financial support. The UCCB is for children under the age of 6 years and is paid in instalments of $100 per month per child.

Leaving aside that these are taxable benefits, that the benefit amount ($100 per month) is totally inadequate for child care, and that the tax benefit does nothing to create quality child care for so many families that need it - leaving all that aside - the UCCB is actually sexist by design, stemming from the sexist assumptions embedded in the Income Tax Act.

On the application for the UCCB, Canada Revenue explains:
...there is a presumption that when both a male and female parent live in the same home as the child, the female parent is considered to be primarily responsible (see the definition on page two of this information sheet) for the child and should apply. However, if the male parent is primarily responsible, he can apply if a signed note from the female parent is attached to the application...

Primarily responsible for the care and upbringing of a child means that you are responsible for such things as supervising the child's daily activities and needs, making sure the child's medical needs are met, and arranging for child care when necessary. If there is a female parent who lives with the child, we usually consider her to be this person. However, it could be the father, a grandparent or a guardian. [See Income Tax Act, Section 122.6(f)]

This floors me. In the 21st Century, an antiquated, gendered division of labour is actually written into federal policy. And it's not like the present government wrote this. It dates back at least as far the 1970s. Although tax codes are constantly evolving, this has never been changed.

Obviously this blatant sexism offends me, but beyond that, it doesn't reflect the realities of contemporary life. Families with equally shared parenting responsibilities have to pretend otherwise to receive their $1,200. Stay-at-home fathers need a note from Primary Earner Mom before their responsibilities can be legally recognized. And same-sex parents... well, good luck with that. They have to convince Canada Revenue Agency that one of them - but not both of them! - is raising a child.

And it's not only the presumption of the mother as primary caregiver; if you look a little deeper, there are all kinds of assumptions going on. If the female parent is assumed to be the primary caregiver, then the male parent is assumed to be the primary income earner, which in turn assumes the female parent earns less than her male partner. Those are some pretty ridiculous assumptions to make these days.

According to Fritz, as recently as 1993, some women's organizations argued in favour of continuing the gendered presumption of care, feeling it protected women's benefits after divorce. Honourable ends, but ridiculous means.

In 2005, former MP Dave Chatters, a Conservative from Alberta, tabled a private member's bill to amend the Income Tax Act to remove the female presumption of child care. Chatters had a constituent who was a single father with full custody of his two children. At some point, the man's female partner - not the children's mother - moved in with him. She did not legally adopt the children, yet the child-care benefit was automatically paid to her! The man tried to fight it, without success. Canada Revenue would only pay the benefit to the man's girlfriend! Chatters sought to change the law on this man's behalf, but the private member's bill went the way of most, dying when an election was called. Chatters, a Conservative, has since retired.

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