By Catharine Tunney

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police pension plan discriminates against women and violates the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Supreme Court ruled in a divided decision released today.

The case was brought forward by three retired female Mounties who argued that elements of the RCMP’s pension plan are outdated and sexist.

Joanne Fraser, Allison Pilgrim and Colleen Fox all had children in the 1990s, when the RCMP wasn’t allowing members to work part-time.

Fraser said she was “overwhelmed” by the effort to balance work and family, Pilgrim described it as a “treadmill” and Fox called the experience “hell on earth,” said Friday’s decision.

The RCMP introduced a program in 1997 that allowed job-sharing as an alternative to unpaid leave, permitting two or three people to split the duties of one full-time position. All three women signed up for that program, as did 137 other members between 1997 and 2011.

The court’s decision noted that most people who joined the program at the time were women and most of them cited child care as their reason for joining.

When Fraser, Pilgrim and Fox returned to their full-time jobs, they learned their part-time work was not considered pensionable service and they would not be permitted to make doubled-up contributions to buy back the time.

But other members with gaps in full-time service, such as leave without pay, were allowed to buy back the service they missed by making the contributions.

The plaintiffs argued that the force’s pension plan treated job-sharers worse than it did other members and breached the section of the Charter of Rights that says the “law should treat everyone equally, without discrimination on certain characteristics.”

SCC decision notes ‘historical disadvantage’

A Federal Court judge disagreed, but the Supreme Court of Canada agreed to hear their arguments.

Today, most of the Supreme Court justices ruled the pension plan discriminated against the job-sharers because they were women.

Justice Rosalie Abella, writing for the majority, called it a clear violation of the charter.

“Full-time RCMP members who job-share must sacrifice pension benefits because of a temporary reduction in working hours. This arrangement has a disproportionate impact on women and perpetuates their historical disadvantage,” says the decision.

“I agree with Ms. Fraser that the negative pension consequences of job-sharing perpetuate a long-standing source of disadvantage to women: gender biases within pension plans, which have historically been designed ‘for middle and upper-income full-time employees with long service, typically male.'”

Paul Champ, who defended the three women, called today’s decision a win for equality.

“The federal government has tinkered with the RCMP pension plan over the years to make it fairer for women who have interruptions in their service for childbirth and care for small children. But it continued to penalize women who wanted to balance their job duties and childcare responsibilities for young children,” he said.

“My clients fought for over 20 years to bring this fundamental equality issue to the attention of the RCMP and, eventually, the courts. They understood it was wrong and unfair to women and they fought all these years to make it right.”

Three justices dissented.

Justices Russell Brown and Malcolm Rowe wrote that the job-sharing program was an attempt by the RCMP to accommodate employees with child care responsibilities and argued that the initiative’s failure to remove disadvantages didn’t make it discriminatory.

Justice Suzanne Côté, meanwhile, argued that the pension plan didn’t single women out for discrimination.

Abella said it will be up to government officials to come up with a plan to allow full-time members who reduced their hours under the job-sharing program to buy back their full pension credit.

A spokesperson for the RCMP said the force is still reviewing Friday’s decision.

“We are currently in the process of reviewing the decision and its implications to determine what steps must be taken. This being said, we are committed to reviewing the job-sharing arrangement,” said Cpl. Caroline Duval.

“The RCMP remains committed to building an inclusive and barrier-free workplace for all of its employees.”

Originally posted by CBC News on 10/16/2020.