OTTAWA — Women who enrolled in the RCMP's job-sharing program while raising young children were unfairly denied the chance to bolster their pensions, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled.
In a 6-3 decision Friday, the high court ruled in favour of three mothers who worked reduced hours on the national police force in order to devote time to their children.
Joanne Fraser, Allison Pilgrim and Colleen Fox said the RCMP pension plan breached their equality rights under the charter by denying them the chance to accrue full-time pension credit for periods when they worked reduced hours for family reasons.
The claimants took maternity leave in the early to mid-1990s but experienced difficulties juggling their work obligations with child-care responsibilities upon returning to full-time service.
Fraser said she felt “overwhelmed” trying to balance work and family.
The three women were among those who enrolled in a new job-sharing program, introduced in December 1997, that allowed regular RCMP members to split the duties of one full-time position.
The women pointed out that under the RCMP pension plan, members can accrue pensionable service during leaves of absence, such as maternity, sick or education leaves, provided the member pays both the employer and employee contributions for the period.
But members who temporarily reduce their hours of work see their pensions diminished, as they are not given the option of "buying back" full-time pension credit for the hours not worked.
The three women, all now retired from the force, were unsuccessful in the Federal Court and in a subsequent appeal, but the Supreme Court agreed to hear their case.
In its decision, the Supreme Court noted nearly all of the participants in the job-sharing program were women and most of them limited their hours of work because of child care.
Justice Rosalie Abella wrote on behalf of the majority that full-time RCMP members who job-share must sacrifice pension benefits because of the temporary reduction in working hours.
"This arrangement has a disproportionate impact on women and perpetuates their historical disadvantage," she said, calling it a "clear violation" of their right to equality under the charter.
The court highlighted the long-standing gender biases within pension plans, historically designed for middle- and upper‑income full-time employees, typically men, with long service.
The court decision is "a huge win for equality and women in the workplace, and in the home," said lawyer Paul Champ, who represented the claimants.
"When I called Joanne Fraser and told her of the win, her response was, 'It's about time.' I couldn't agree more."
Abella said it will be up to federal officials to devise the methodology for full-time members who reduced their hours under the job-sharing program to buy back their full pension credit.
But she said any measures should be in keeping with the court's reasons and apply retroactively to give the claimants in the case, and others in their position, a meaningful remedy.
Taking a broader view, Abella said the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women in Canada set out a "galvanic blueprint" for redressing the legal, economic, social and political barriers to full and fair participation faced by Canadian women for generations.
"Many of the inequities it identified have been spectacularly reversed, and the result has been enormous progressive change for women in this country," she said in the ruling.
"But despite the sweep of legislative initiatives and the positive realignment of many social expectations, the long reach of entrenched assumptions about the role of women in a family continues to leave its mark on what happens in the workplace."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 16, 2020.
Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press