When Canada Revenue Agency webmaster Michelle Kirby took maternity leave from her job to have kids, there was no question her position would be waiting for her when she was ready to return to work.
When Maja Tait returned to her role April 1 as the mayor of Sooke after spending four months off to be with her newborn son, Ewen, she was expecting the same kind of treatment.
It didn’t happen.
Instead, Tait discovered her duties as Capital Regional District director had been handed off to one her councillors on a permanent basis.
But what had potential to be a messy battle over parental and women’s rights has, she said, turned into something positive less than two weeks later.
Her CRD position has been restored, a potential rift with her council has been healed, she’s received an outpouring of support from her peers across Vancouver Island and the provincial government says it is open to changing the law to prevent similar situations from occurring in the future.
“In hindsight, it was kind of a unique situation,” she said. “It was a good thing because it showed the gap in the legislation.”
As far as Tait has been able to determine, she is the first sitting mayor in B.C. history to take maternity leave.
Unlike a regular job, elected local government officials are not covered under the Employment Standards Act.
Instead, they are creatures of the Community Charter and Local Government Act, where the issue of maternity benefits is not addressed. Tait voluntarily gave up her $20,000 stipend as mayor and her $17,000 CRD stipend during her leave, the terms of which she had arranged with her council prior to booking off.
More significantly, elected officials can be disqualified from office for missing 60 consecutive days of duty. Without the cooperation of her council, Tait’s maternity leave could have led to her being dismissed.
Kirby called that an injustice that must be corrected.
In addition to her CRA job, Kirby is also a sitting councillor for the Town of Oak Bay.
Upon hearing of Tait’s situation on the eve of the April 8-10 Association of Vancouver Island and Coastal Communities conference, she rallied delegates to pass a unanimous resolution supporting parental leave for elected officials that is consistent with employment standards.
That same resolution also asks for guarantees that those affected can return to work under the same terms that they left.
“It was pretty infuriating,” Kirby said. “First of all, it’s a fairness and equality issue, but (it goes) beyond that.”
The resolution has no power on its own, other than signalling the province of a desire to change the legislation.
According to the Ministry of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, the message has been informally received and will be considered when it formally arrives.
“If there are recommendations that come forward to make things as fair as they can be, then government will take a look at that,” the ministry said in a statement released to Black Press.
The statement also pointed out how, absent of any change, individual councils and regional districts have the power to address these situations through internal policy.
“Local governments in B.C. have the authority to adopt and amend procedure bylaws to address how council/board appointments are made…(including how to address changes to appointments to accommodate various types of leave).”
Sooke council had originally resisted returning Tait’s CRD duties, causing some friction. But it reversed that position Monday, in the wake of the AVICC resolution.
At her own suggestion, Tait will slowly transition back into her CRD role before returning to it full-time in September. She couldn’t be happier with the way the AVICC responded to the situation and hopes the government will follow through with the necessary legislative changes.
“What I saw at the AVICC was quite beautiful and quite moving,” she said.
“They offered me nothing but support and encouragement. This is something worth showcasing.”
Both Tait and Kirby said the best thing about the AVICC resolution is the message it sent to young women considering entering local government.
“There were several young women — and men — there who were extremely moved. It signals to them that we want them to stay,” Kirby said.
“It makes space and sends a message to encourage young people to the table.”