Three retired female Mounties head to Federal Court today to argue that elements of the RCMP's pension plan are outdated and sexist. If they're successful, it could mean big changes for other public service pensions, their lawyer says.
Joanne Fraser, Allison Pilgrim and Colleen Fox decided to work part time temporarily for the national police force after having children, in order to accommodate child-care arrangements while doing shift work.
Yet when they returned to work full time they learned their part-time stints were not considered pensionable service for which they could "buy back" the time they didn't work by making doubled-up contributions on behalf of themselves and the RCMP.
What really annoyed the women, though, was that RCMP employees who were suspended with or without pay, or who chose to take as much as five years off work without pay, were allowed to buy back their pension contributions.
"It doesn't make sense that someone can be off for a total of five years without contributing to the RCMP at all, yet buy back that full five years of pension," said Fraser, who retired a sergeant in 2015 after 27 years of service.
Documents filed on the women's behalf by Ottawa labour lawyer Paul Champ say the RCMP pension plan discriminates on the grounds of sex and family status.
"The plan perpetuates the stereotype that it is acceptable for women to fill one of two roles in society — that of caregiver or member of the labour force, but not both at the same time."
The RCMP first allowed people to work in job-share agreements in 1997. According to the RCMP's 2012 gender-based assessment, the aim was to accommodate women and others who need "maternity/parental leave."
The same year, a draft employment equity plan said the force would promote part-time work "to support women and others achieve a better balance in coping with work and family responsibilities."
'I felt as though I was excelling as a mother and as a member of the RCMP.' — Colleen Fox
Fraser was one of the first people to try out the new scheme. Like many women in Canada in the 1990s, she returned to work six months after having her first child. It was tough.
"I'm married to a member as well. We were working shift work. We had no family in Alberta, all of our family is in Quebec and Ontario," she told CBC News.
When Fraser had her second child, she decided to take a leave without pay. After three years, Fraser said, she was encouraged to try job-sharing. She worked part time for three years before resuming her full-time job.
It was then she learned that while her three years of unpaid leave were fully deemed pensionable service, she could not buy back the hours she didn't work while part-time.
Fox also described in court documents the challenge of balancing police work and life with an infant.
She had to meet her husband, who is also a Mountie, "at coffee shops and on lunch breaks while she was on patrol so she could breastfeed her son."
After having her second child in a rural community with limited child-care options before part-time work was introduced in 1997, Fox felt she had no option but to retire.
In 2000 she re-enrolled because she could job-share. "I felt as though I was excelling as a mother and as a member of the RCMP."
'The federal Public Service Superannuation Act also has this discriminating element to it.' — Lawyer Paul Champ
"The applicants all face lower pension benefits on retirement because they chose to job-share and balance their police duties with their family obligations while their children were young," Champ argues, citing statistics that show everyone who shared jobs between 2010 and 2014 was a woman.
The women hope the Federal Court will find the pension plan discriminatory and grant all Mounties who've worked reduced, job-share hours the right to buy back pensionable service.
Big changes possible
In their documents, lawyers for Canada's attorney general dispute that most of the RCMP's part-time employees are women with young children. They say any decision to permit members to buy back pension benefits "would be making a significant policy choice that is best left to Parliament."
"The aim of the RCMP pension plan is to provide retirement income and benefits for members. It is not to offset the costs associated with child care, to provide 'universal welfare benefits,' or to meet all of the needs of its beneficiaries."
What the government is likely more concerned with though, is a ripple effect, Champ said.
"If they change the RCMP pension plan to allow people to get pensionable service while working part time, they would have to do it for other public service workers because the federal Public Service Superannuation Act also has this discriminating element to it, and I think they might be concerned about costs," said Champ.