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Pregnancy is not a crime: A look into the injustice that pregnant Carleton graduate students face

By Yasmine Ghania

Being pregnant at any age can be very overwhelming. Now imagine being pregnant and losing your income, health benefits, bus pass and gym membership because of it.

Clare and her son, Henrik, enjoying time together. Credit: Clare Glassco

Clare and her son, Henrik, enjoying time together.
Credit: Clare Glassco

That is exactly what happened to Clare Glassco. Glassco is a 38-year-old mother who was in her first year of the two-year Master of Social Work Program (MSW) at Carleton University in 2017.

Glassco was a fully-funded graduate student when she became pregnant and had no other source of income. She had no idea how was she was supposed to pay for necessities like health benefits and transportation, which Carleton had suddenly taken away.

“Once I became pregnant, it was like I was completely on my own,” Glassco told the Leveller. When Glassco informed the university that she was pregnant, they made her pay a fee to hold her place in the master’s program, even though she would not be able to attend for the next two semesters in order to take care of her baby.

“The first thing they tell me is I have to pay for every term that I want to take off ‘so you can remain a student.’ At the same time, they take away all the privileges you have as a student. This $280 that I paid, I don’t even know what it went towards.”

This mistreatment and non-response from Carleton led Glassco to write a letter to the university, which was published in the Leveller on Oct. 25 last year.

On Nov. 28, 2017, Glassco decided to get in touch with Suzanne Blanchard, who is the Vice President and University Registrar at Carleton and responsible for overseeing students’ academic and personal support services. Blanchard did not even respond to her email, much less help her.

Thankfully, Glassco got a bursary of $1,500 from the Graduate Students Association (GSA) and was able to pay for necessities for her and her child.  

Glassco’s letter drew the attention of CBC, leading to a morning radio interview and an online article. CBC’s article had to be rewritten twice due to the Carleton administration giving the broadcasting corporation misleading statements.

In the original article, it was written that “The university also said graduate students can apply for an emergency bursary worth up to $250 or a one-time family leave grant worth up to $1,500 through the Graduate Students’ Association, which is funded by the university.” This in fact is false, as the GSA is almost exclusively funded by student dues.

Furthermore, the administration told the CBC that the Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs (FGPA) gives the GSA $6,000 that goes towards helping pregnant graduate students. It was written in the article that each student has access to this $6, 000 amount but in reality, this money is the total amount that is supposed to help all students, not just pregnant students.

Glassco went on to tell the Leveller how badly she needed help from the university because it was one of the few resources that she had.

Glassco would not be able to get any assistance from the government through the Employment Insurance (EI) program. Although Glassco has been putting money into EI for all of her working life, she was not able to get any money from it while on leave because she was not actively in the workforce for the year she attended the MSW program.

As a student, Glassco could also not access the basic worker’s right of a maternity leave. Any woman who is in the workforce in Canada who becomes pregnant has a right to maternity leave. While on maternity leave, women get commensurate payments based on their salaries. Their jobs are also held for them until they return, without penalty.

Essentially punished for getting pregnant as a student rather than a worker, Glassco had to pay to remain a student, while losing privileges that go with being a student – health benefits, a bus pass and even gym membership.

“The government won’t help you, the university won’t help you, so you have nothing. Basically I’m going to end up losing a lot of money and have to find money somewhere else to be able to finish my studies – and it’s all because I had a baby.”

Glassco is very disappointed by how Carleton University has treated her and wants their policy on graduate students’ parental leave to be improved.

Glassco and the GSA Political Action Committee are initiating a campaign to get Carleton to improve their policy on pregnant graduate students. They are asking Carleton to provide funding for parental leave, commensurate to a student’s individual funding.

To begin with, they are asking for a direct response from the FGPA to Glassco’s letter and CBC interview. The GSA is committed to pressuring Carleton to remove the fee that must be paid to reserve a student’s position in the program, as well as increasing the total amount in the GSA’s budget for family grants.

Not all Canadian universities treat pregnant students the way Carleton does. At the University of Waterloo, all graduate students who are having a baby or wanting to adopt have access to a $5,000 scholarship in the first semester and up to $4,000 in the second semester. Additionally, students are not required to pay a fee to hold their place in the program.

“These students are obviously incredibly gifted and we’re thrilled to have them working with us and studying with us,” said Jeff Kinsella, the Associate Vice President of Graduate Studies and Postdoctoral Affairs at the University of Waterloo in an interview with CBC. Waterloo’s retention rate of these students has gone up since instituting their scholarship, which they consider a win-win.

On the other hand, Carleton did not attempt to make any efforts to assist Glassco, who told the Leveller about how disappointed she was that Carleton turned its back on her. “I was part of a very vibrant community as a graduate student at Carleton. This was my life. All of a sudden, they just kicked me out of that community.”

Glassco believes that depriving women of an education should not be an issue in this day and age. “I don’t think this policy is fair. You can’t discriminate because someone is pregnant… Men and women should both have parental leave. It should be completely equal. However, historically, it’s been women who’ve been kept out of the workforce and academia for having children. This happened to my mother 30 years ago and the fact that this is still happening to me now is appalling.”

This article first appeared in the Leveller Vol. 10, No. 4 (Jan/Feb 2018).

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