Family Leave: How a museum without walls celebrated a major Canadian breakthrough
By Arthur Carkner, Cydney Foote, Bob Hatfield, and Sanna Guérin
(Presented at the SSHA Panel on Women in the Public Sector, hosted by the Social Science History Association in Toronto, November 6-9, 2014.)
Family leave has had a major, positive effect on the economic stability of Canadian families, on the emotional stability of children and parents, on the ability of workers, especially women, to advance their careers and still bring up a family, on the work life/family life balance of workers, and on workplace stability, since employers are better able to retain workers.
Like other societal goods, including policies and processes that benefit the social fabric of society, family leave has become accepted as something that “always was.” While this can be a natural and even an advantageous response (for established programs are more difficult to overturn), it also means that the steps taken to establish this benefit can be forgotten.
In 2009, the Workers’ History Museum (WHM) undertook to capture the events, ideas, and people involved in the establishment of Canada’s family leave policies. The result was our Family Leave Project (FLP), a multi-year, multimedia project focusing on how Canadian feminists, activists, and unionists won paid maternity and family leave benefits. The FLP examines the work of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1969-1970, with legislative results beginning in 1971), and a series of negotiations, strikes, and political actions by Canadian workers in the 1970s and ’80s which brought in paid maternity leave, parental and adoption leave, care and nurturing leave, leave for sick children, and related benefits – the family leave package.
These struggles were politically controversial at the time and derided in the media, but hundreds of thousands of Canadian workers have benefitted from these rights. In various forms, they have spread broadly to many workers in both the private and public sectors. Taken together, they have provided more options for parents and better lives for their whole families.
WHM’s project (which includes a bilingual, five-panel travelling exhibit, a 24-minute bilingual video documentary, and bilingual educational materials) preserves this story and brings these struggles to as wide an audience as possible. The exhibit has been on display at conferences and courses across the country, more than 1,400 copies of the documentary have been sold, and the educational materials are being used by a number of learning institutions and unions.
This paper examines the challenges that WHM faced in producing this exhibit. These include:
- Logistical issues derived from its being a “museum without walls” (WHM does not have its own exhibition space);
- WHM’s status as a predominantly volunteer organization;
- Funding concerns; and
- Technical obstacles.
Identifying the lessons learned from the FLP has been a useful exercise for our own process as we develop and execute further exhibits, videos, and other materials, and should be of interest to others in the museum, public history, and heritage sector. To understand the scope of the FLP, a brief introduction to the historical events we documented is a necessary starting point.
Background: The struggle for family leave in Canada
In 1971, the Federal Government acted on recommendations from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. They amended the Unemployment Insurance Act to include 15 weeks maternity benefits at 66% of their salary for mothers with at least 20 weeks of insurable earnings. But this was not enough; as women were making, on average, only 60 % of a man’s salary, and there was a two-week unpaid waiting period, many women could not make ends meet with this level of income. At this point, unions started to campaign to include maternity leave top-up in their collective agreements.
In 1974, the Association of University and College Employees (AUCE) at the University of British Columbia negotiated the first collective agreement with paid maternity leave. Unions representing the Quebec government, education, and health workers combined their bargaining strength in the Common Front. In 1979, they negotiated 20 weeks fully paid maternity leave, 10 weeks adoption leave, and five days paid paternity leave.
In 1981, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), under the leadership of Jean-Claude Parrot, had to strike for 42 days to win 17 weeks paid maternity leave, but they made the issue legitimate in the public’s eyes. (Parrot, 2005) The following year, federal clerks, members of the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC), and Bell telephone workers, members of the Communications Workers of Canada (CWC), negotiated paid maternity leave. These wins came after both unions had gone on strike in the previous round of negotiations.
These breakthroughs rocked Canada at the time and still resonate in the lives of young families across the country. This is, in the end, the happy – if unfinished – story of how determined people and changing times have helped to improve the lives of individuals, of families, and of society as a whole.
The Workers’ History Museum
The Workers’ History Museum was uniquely positioned to tell this story. Its volunteers included union activists, feminists and specialists with museum training and experience. WHM is a not-for-profit corporation based in Ottawa. Founded in January 2011, the museum strives to produce exhibits using existing but little-known material, capturing voices and preserving artifacts and images that might be lost in order to highlight the accomplishments of those who are ignored or overlooked in traditional histories.To date, it has developed travelling exhibits, produced documentaries, launched an oral history project, presented at labour and history conferences, organized community storytelling events and fundraisers related to workers history, and ventured into the world of social media and digital humanities. Among its many projects are industrial image recording and developing site-specific historical interpretive material.
Through partnerships with the Department of Public History at Carleton University and the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology, it is able to identify promising new projects, extend its research base, and create exhibits that are relevant to the Ottawa region and Canada more generally.
A volunteer Board of Directors consisting of four executive members, six members-at-large and four institutional members runs the museum. Four permanent committees: Exhibits and Education, Membership and Fundraising, Communications, and Video meet regularly to provide support in their areas of specialization. Project work is carried out by volunteer ad hoc project working groups, which sometimes contract with paid specialists in design, film production, etc.
This well-established structure belies the fact that the majority of the museum’s activities are carried out by volunteers. The special nature of volunteer organizations means that projects are affected by balancing scheduling concerns, the skill sets and knowledge of the individuals involved, and basic personal interests. In the case of family leave, these factors aligned in such a way that the WHM could initiate and execute the FLP.
Genesis of the FLP
The idea to preserve the struggle for family leave was initiated by Arthur Carkner. A lifelong activist, Carkner spent 35 years as a PSAC member volunteer and staffer. He worked on political action and organized demonstrations, conferences and strikes. His assignments included the Workers with Disabilities committee, workers’ compensation, the Racially Visible Action Committee, and other direct member representation.
Carkner also served on PSAC’s clerical workers’ bargaining committee, which made the paid maternity leave break-through at the federal government level. His desire to preserve and celebrate this important issue was motivated by its historical import:
When I looked back at retirement, I realized that this was the most important among many things I had worked on in the union movement. While the political Right talked about “family values,” the Left had actually achieved real improvements for families. (A. Carkner, personal communication, October 12, 2014)
Robert Hatfield, the president of WHM, was the other early and sustaining partner on this project. A retired labour educator, Hatfield formerly directed the education program of a major national union, the CEP. He developed and taught courses for several unions, the Labour College of Canada, and the Canadian Labour Congress for more than 30 years. This expertise was particularly useful in the educational and exhibit elements of the project and helped broaden its scope.
Carkner and Hatfield soon found that this issue was “the perfect storm of involvement and merging of priorities of the feminist movement and political progressives – in some cases the people were one and the same!” (A. Carkner, personal communication, October 12, 2014) This discovery led them to involve a myriad of people and to conceive of a video documentary, A Struggle to Remember: Fighting for Our Families.
Challenge and opportunity of a museum without walls
WHM refers to itself as “a museum without walls,” in part for the practical reason that at this early stage in its development, the Museum did not have the resources to house a collection and pay for its own exhibition space; even currently, WHM only has room to store its artifacts, and relies on partner organizations to house our exhibitions. The FLP was the first opportunity for WHM to define for itself how it would fulfill the role of a museum under this definition. The solution was simple: Bring the museum experience to where the people were, rather than hoping they would come to us. To that end, the FLP would comprise of four products used for outreach purposes:
- A travelling exhibition;
- A video documentary;
- Educational course materials; and
- Web-based material.
Virtual museums are not new to Canada; the Virtual Museum of Canada alone has been in existence since 2001. There are ample examples to look to for best practices. However, as WHM has often found in conversation from the stalwarts of the museum world, it is often difficult for an established institution to adapt to the virtual world due to expense or directorial flexibility. As a new organization, WHM currently lacks the institutional rigidity that might cripple innovation and benefits from partnerships with other organizations such as the Carleton Centre for Public History and the Canadian Museum of Science and Technology that allow the creation of ambitious web-based learning.
Framing the project
In the early stages of the FLP’s creation, Carkner, Hatfield, and the other participants had to determine the parameters of what could become a wide-ranging and potentially unmanageable project. As Hatfield explains,
The labour unionists who initiated the project saw one of the purposes as being to celebrate the achievements of activists such as union members, feminists, political campaigners, etc. Some museum specialists who worked on the development of the exhibit suggested a more neutral stance. Eventually, we struck a position which reflected the best ideas of both groups. (R. Hatfield, personal communication, October 8, 2014)
This compromise resulted in framing the issue in terms of family leave, rather than simply maternity leave. According to Carkner, this decision “did not detract from the centrality of paid maternity leave [but] it enriched it by allowing inclusion of aboriginal custom adoption, GLBTQ issues, etc.” This conscious choice of terminology and the areas of reference and exploration widened the project’s scope, made it more inclusive and opened the door for future projects around this issue.
WHM also had to determine which products would best express the historical struggle for family leave. This was not a cut-and-dried decision; Hatfield describes the various turns that it took:
Initially, we thought of oral history interviews that would be stored in the archives and used at some future date by other people. We moved from this to an “educational” video aimed at a union course audience, with the video divided into parts with opportunities for discussion between the parts. Finally, we decided on a 20-minute documentary, to be used on union and other courses, but also of use for a much broader audience, including a general television audience. (R. Hatfield, personal communication, October 8, 2014)
A mobile exhibit that could be presented alongside the documentary was also conceptualized.
Financing the FLP
The budget for the FLP was formulated with the help of a professional filmmaker and a professional graphic designer. It was estimated that completing all aspects of the project would require $65,000.
Funding any heritage project can present significant financial obstacles. This was especially so for WHM because the museum was new. Soliciting funding for a movement-centred project presented additional challenges. The WHM did not want to be, or be seen to be, under the control of one union, or of unions generally; rather, in financing this project, it needed to be independent and analytical, while remaining respectful of genuine achievements of historic importance. The goal was to make a “movement movie” and look at the broad scope of allies and actors. To achieve this, a wide variety of funding sources was sought out. Unions were solicited by letter, with materials that included project endorsers, an outline, and budget. Follow-up personal contacts were later made, and contributions were secured from four of Canada’s largest labour organizations. Financing was also secured through Canada Summer Jobs and the City of Ottawa, which have formal application processes. “The museum had no track record. So, people eventually supported us on the strength of the past achievements of individual team members, a leap of faith on their part.” (R. Hatfield, personal communication, October 8, 2014)
Logistics – filming and editing
The team had never worked together on a project like this before. All the principal people involved had worked on similar projects with other groups, but these had their own, different modus operandi. When production began, therefore, the WHM had to work through different assumptions about what should be done, how it should be done and who should do it.
The process of sorting out a common vision involved research, numerous conversations, and the organic evolution of the interviews as they transpired. Initially ideas were shopped around to key unions for financial support, access to information, and image archives.From this research emerged the realization that previously collected oral interviews were not of the quality required for the project. Because the interviews had been conducted and filmed by several different people, there was a lack of consistency in framing, lighting and sound quality.
This, along with the need to record interviews in a timely manner, guided much of the development process. “An example of urgency in preserving voices was Jean Claude Parrot. He is in his upper seventies, but his recollections are clear and cogent. Others in the movement have not lived that long, or are too ill to be interviewed.” (A. Carkner, personal communication, October 12, 2014)
Carkner further recalls, “I wrote the initial scenario … [which] was the guide to the interviews, but we learned a lot from interview to interview, and new ideas emerged.” One such idea was about the rights of gay couples who adopt, which had not been part of the original project scope.
In volunteer-based organizations, the execution of projects can be complicated by the skill levels and competing time commitments of the participants. The WHM struggled with scheduling conflicts and missed deadlines throughout all stages of the production, as well as with the fact that many of those involved were just learning about documentary film production. To address this last concern, oral history training was initiated by Hatfield and Carkner, with help from WHM member Ken Clavette. This course evolved into an ongoing offering of WHM, and has since been presented to history and communications students at the University of Ottawa and Carleton University.
Award-winning filmmaker Aaron Floresco, head of Manitoba-based film company Past Perfect Productions, was hired to direct the documentary. He had previously volunteered with WHM and had strong labour movement connections and a growing reputation as a talented director. With Carkner and Hatfield, he interviewed key figures from the movement as well as people who had directly gained from the changes in family leave. Archival footage was chosen, showing unionists demonstrating, organizing, and striking to advance family issues as union priorities. This was combined with contemporary footage that showed how the struggle continues today with issues like the negotiation of aboriginal custom adoption contract language in Inuktitut and Dene.
Floresco initially produced a 45-minute assemblage of the footage. This was then reduced to a 25-minute rough cut after Carkner and Hatfield identified key issues and questions of balance and diversity, striving to include interviews with labour leaders and grass roots members, women and men, francophones and anglophones. From that, they “sweated bullets” to trim the documentary to 20 minutes, “which we believe is the appropriate length for courses, meetings, panels, etc.” (A. Carkner, personal communication, October 12, 2014)
A further task was translation. Labour has a jargon all of its own, and translation needed to be done by people sensitive to the specific usages and vocabulary employed by the labour movement. Fortunately, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, which has its own translators, generously donated their services to the project.
Logistics – travelling exhibit
Lindsay Harasymchuk, Erika Reinhardt, and Hatfield used the interviews and their own research to develop the text for the travelling exhibit, with editorial assistance from Sanna Guérin. Professional designer and graphics expert, WHM member André Mersereau, was hired to design the exhibit’s five panels. Challenges included:
- Balancing the primacy of the content against the visual needs of the design;
- Finding suitable graphic elements – many photographs, for example, were of too poor quality to be usable;
- Designing an exhibit in both English and French that was not too crowded; and
- Selecting hardware that was affordable yet rugged, easy to set up and take down, and attractive.
The end product is a highly attractive, five-panel, bilingual exhibit, which is and has been seen by thousands at conventions, schools, workplaces, museums, etc. Two copies are in near-constant circulation because demand for the FLP has been so high.
The final video product, A Struggle to Remember: Fighting for Our Families, starts with the 1960’s struggle to recognize women’s role in society and the workplace. It details the events that led to the 1971 extension of Unemployment Insurance benefits to include partly paid maternity leave, and ended with key cases from the 1980s that outlawed same-sex benefit discrimination.
The film premiered at SAW Gallery on October 19, 2012. The site was chosen for its active community profile. SAW Gallery is an artist-run centre in Ottawa’s central core that supports politically and socially engaged art. The WHM launch was publicized through extensive outreach to the WHM membership and the general public; over 100 people attended the premiere. It was also reviewed in History Slam’s podcast on December 12, 2012, which interviewed Carkner and Rosemary Warskett and called the film “beautifully put together.” (Graham, 2012)
The premiere was videotaped by Wasim Baobaid, a WHM volunteer and graduate of Algonquin College’s documentary film program. His 10-minute production, which went on the WHM web page, proved invaluable in publicizing the FLP.
In the first half of 2013, A Struggle to Remember: Fighting for Our Families was submitted to the Canadian Labour International Film Festival (CLiFF). This juried festival showcases films about unionised workers, as well as those not represented by unions. It is hosted each November at various locations across Canada. WHM’s documentary was chosen as part of CLiFF’s “Festival-in-a-Box” (FIAB) program. According to CLiFF, “most of our locations request this package as it fits most needs,” ensuring that A Struggle to Remember: Fighting for Our Families was presented by CLiFF organizers across the country. The WHM documentary also became a part of CLiFF’s Labour Film Library for ongoing educational work. (CLiFF, 2013)
The museum has spent the years since promoting the FLP through associations with Multiple Births Canada, union meetings, and other venues (including conferences like this one), as well as direct promotions to make it available to schools, libraries, and unions. It has also developed educational and facilitation materials appropriate to university, high school, and union settings. It is estimated that, to date, between 7,000-8,000 people have seen the FLP exhibit.
Impact on the Labour Movement
The struggle that led to the winning of family leave provisions was arguably the first major success for second wave feminism within the Canadian labour movement. It encouraged and strengthened the movement in a number of ways.
First, feminists and their supporters did not rest on their laurels; winning family leave spurred them on and gave them the confidence to tackle other struggles around other issues. For example, unions who had played a key role in winning family leave provisions took on the blatant injustice of pay inequity. It was a struggle that for unions such as PSAC, CEP, and CUPW lasted about 2 decades – years spent on grass roots organizing, member education, demonstrations, lobbying, negotiations, classifications reviews, legal battles, and appearances before Human Rights tribunals. Unions devoted an enormous amount of resources – money, volunteer hours, and staff time – to the pay equity struggle. Spending such time and resources on a “rights issue” helped change the orientation and focus of many unions.
The experience that women and supporters had in fighting for family leave, and the skills they acquired in the campaign, were useful in taking on other struggles, whether they fell within the ambit of “women’s issues” or not. Unions saw an increase in female activists at all levels who were armed with the skills required to successfully conduct campaigns. Male activists, used to ruling the roost, had to accommodate to the influence of women in areas such as leadership that for many unions had been an exclusive male domain.
Feminists within the labour movement started to organize in a deliberate way to advance women to increasingly important positions within unions. Within unions, formal and informal strategies were adopted to increase the number of female staff, advance more women to positions of higher responsibility within the organization, increase the number of women holding elected positions within the unions, and remove any “ceilings” that prevented them from getting to the top positions. The first female president of the PSAC, Nycole Turmel, had been a leader in the PSAC’s CR strike and an activist in the family leave campaign. When CWC merged with two male-majority unions to form CEP, they ensured that provisions were made to include women on the union’s board of directors. Other labour bodies changed their constitutions to reserve a minimum number of seats for women on executive boards.
The election of Shirley Carr (in 1986) as the first woman to head the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) was part of a long, rising tide of activists on women’s issues moving from practical achievement to greater credibility to increased success in the political arena. Although there were prominent women going back for decades, this tide was becoming unstoppable, and the CLC executive board had many more women around the table as union presidents, federation of labour presidents, and senior staff in the years following the family leave advances.
The success of women was encouraging to other equity seeking groups, such as people of colour, Aboriginal peoples, members of the LGBT community, and people with disabilities. They, often with the support of feminists and other activists went on to win successes of their own.
Unionists realised that if women were to reach their full potential within the movement, union education would have to include current “women’s issues”-specific training for men and women, and other training for women only. Family leave was used as a case study in leadership and negotiations courses. An issue such as sexual harassment was now dealt with in general courses delivered by unions, e.g., during stewards’ training, but also, in many unions, had its own one- or two-day course. There was an increased understanding among all unionists of issues that women faced. In addition, leadership courses included discussions of the role of women within unions and ways to ensure that they had the same opportunities to make a full contribution as men, e.g., holding meetings at times when women with child care responsibilities could attend.
The labour movement also started to organize women’s conferences to deal with “women’s issues” and allow women to network at regional and national levels. Women built mutual support systems across Canada and increased their influence within the movement. Some women’s conferences had male and female participants, but many restricted participation to women only.
All levels of the labour movement delivered Woman at Work courses, restricted to women participants. As well as dealing with general issues of interest to women, they provided a space for participants to discuss issues that would have been difficult to deal with thoroughly had men been present. These courses gave their participants confidence, a better grasp on workplace and other issues that they faced, and, in many cases, an increased determination to play a greater role in the union. They increased women’s participation and changed the gender balance of negotiating committees, local executives, staff, and full-time elected officers.
The involvement of the rank and file through lobbying, demonstrations, and other means of concerted collective action in the struggle to win maternity leave and other family leave led unions to use these tactics more often. Instead of relying on a negotiating team to meet with management and hammer out a collective agreement, with little or no input from rank and file members, unionists became increasingly aware of how demonstrations and other activities could boost the chances of an employer’s acceding to workers’ demands. Similarly, workers who had relied on lawyers to argue cases at law, again without rank and file involvement, saw that collective action such as demonstrations could influence employers. In situations where the employer was government, they might even lead to a change in legislation in favour of causes that unions were promoting.
Family leave success made unions more attractive to the unorganized. Workers were attracted by the fact that being unionized might bring with it a contract that included family leave provisions. But perhaps more importantly, the positive image created in some media and in the public imagination of unions fighting employers to win an important benefit for workers countered the often inaccurate, negative stereotypes of unions. The images of women fighting for their rights during the family leave campaign also countered negative stereotypes about women.
The struggle for family leave permanently changed the Canadian labour movement, society, and history. As many workers’ gains are being contested in the current political atmosphere, it is an apt time to examine and understand both the price paid to win these gains and the methods used. That is why WHM undertakes projects like this one.
We hope that people can learn from these successes, understand how to defend what has been won and face future challenges. We also hope that others will be encouraged to produce their own exhibits and documentaries to celebrate workers’ victories and take an active approach to history.
CLiFF (Canadian Labour International Film Festival), Labour Films. 2013. Web. October 19, 2014.
Graham, Sean. “History Slam Episode Eleven: A Struggle to Remember: Fighting for Our Families.” History Slam, December 12, 2012. Web. October 19, 2014.
Parrot, Jean-Claude. My Union My Life: Jean-Claude Parrot and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2005. Print.
White, Julie. Mail and Female: Women and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Toronto: Thompson Educational Publishing, 1990. Print.
The WHM mission statement is: The Workers’ History Museum is dedicated to the development and preservation of workers’ history and heritage. The Workers’ History Museum will:
- Present, promote, interpret, and preserve working class history, heritage, and culture with a special emphasis on Ottawa and the Ottawa Valley.
- Increase awareness of workers’ history and heritage among the public and target groups.
- Create long-term local and regional expertise on exhibiting workers’ history and heritage.
- Promote workers’ history and heritage in collaboration with heritage, labour, cultural, educational, and tourism organizations.
- Interpret and preserve the cultural heritage of all workers and their families in our community, including organized and non-organized workers and those for pay or otherwise.
- Foster concerted efforts among the cultural, worker heritage, and tourism fields.
WHM is partnered with the Centre for Public History at Carleton University and works closely with Dr. David Dean and Dr. Bruce Elliott on a number of projects including exhibitions and workshops for students. We have a number of expert technical and academic advisors such as Dr. Rhonda Hinther (formerly Canadian Museum of Human Rights, Winnipeg, now University of Manitoba), Dr. Elaine Bernard (Harvard University), and Christina Tessier (formerly of the Bytown Museum).
 The FLP eventually received support from the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, the Public Service Alliance of Canada, Canada Employment and Immigration Union (PSAC), and Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada.
 Additional research, production, and design support was supplied by Ken Clavette, Naomi Gadbois, Sanna Guérin, Lindsay Harasymchuk, Evert Hoogers, Kayla Pegg, Kelly Pineault, Erika Reinhardt, and Virginia Systsma.
 FIAB puts a complete film festival in a ready-to-use format which demystifies the whole process. Essentially, the CLiFF Board of Directors selects a 120-minute to 180-minute program comprising of films already accepted into the festival and packages them with additional materials to help the hosting location (any town, city, village or municipality) pull off a festival where they live. (CLiFF, 2013)