Death at a distance: Is Canada’s bereavement leave policy enough for immigrant workers? - New Canadian Media
New Canadian Media writer Ruhina Taskin with her brother and their mother, Selina Begum. (Contributed photo)

Death at a distance: Is Canada’s bereavement leave policy enough for immigrant workers?

Prompted by her own experience of losing her mother, New Canadian Media writer Ruhina Taskin examines whether Canada's bereavement leave policies sufficiently support immigrants

In a country celebrated for its mosaic of cultures, are Canada’s Bereavement Leave policies adequate in supporting immigrant employees who have experienced the death of a loved one back home? 

For many immigrants from far-flung nations like India, China, the Philippines, and various African countries, the journey to their country of origin is not just lengthy but also costly, posing a significant challenge during times of loss.

New Canadian Media writer Ruhina Taskin, learned from first-hand experience that the answer is generally, no. 

Here is her story:

On a stormy night in December 2022 I received the most dreaded phone call that is the nightmare of every immigrant. The odd hour phone call is always scary. This one brought me the news of my mother having a heart attack and she passed away.

I still can remember that the first thing I did was frantically looking for my passport everywhere in my home. My husband got on his computer looking for a ticket for me. It was during the Christmas holiday. The weather was stormy and a lot of airlines were not operating.

I was just able to send a whatsapp message to my supervisor at the office that I am going home. Thankfully, I got a ticket from Biman Bangladesh Airlines which could take me home in about 20 hours. 

I can remember, my coworker went through a similar situation in 2020. She was a newcomer in Ontario and worked for a non-profit. 

“At around 4 a.m in the morning I received a call from home which immediately told me something was not right. My mother passed away. It was so tough for me to travel because of COVID-19. But we managed to book a flight and go. I took leave for a month which was unpaid,” she said in a conversation with NCM.

She was able to join work after coming back. “But after about two months, the company asked me to rethink if I need more time off. They implied that the whole situation was hampering my performance. I resigned from the company. Even though they did not ask directly, when I look back I cannot help but think, they just asked me to leave voluntarily. For that, I was not even eligible for Employment Insurance,” she said.

Bereavement leave in Canada

These incidents made me dig deeper into the government policies. Getting in your car and attending the funeral of a family member within your province and flying a thousand miles to home and back is not the same. 

Currently, almost 500,000 new immigrants come to Canada annually – one of the highest rates per population of any country in the world. Over eight million immigrants with permanent residence are living in Canada, equal to about 20 percent of the total population, as of 2023. Ontario had the most immigrants, with 199,297 arriving between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023.

According to the Employment Standards Act in Ontario:

Employees are entitled to up to two full days of job protected unpaid bereavement leave every calendar year, whether they are employed on a full or part-time basis.

A representative from the Ministry of Labour, Immigration, Training and Skills Development further explained: 

  • The Employment Standards Act (ESA) sets out minimum rights for most employees in Ontario workplaces. The ESA provides minimum standards only. Some employees may have additional entitlements under an employment contract, collective agreement, the common law or other legislation that gives them greater rights.  
  • Under the ESA, most employees have the right to take up to two days of unpaid job-protected bereavement leave each calendar year after they have worked for their employer for at least two consecutive weeks, because of the death of certain family members. 
  • However, every person’s situation is different and only an employment standards officer can determine what entitlements an employee may have. For more information about the ESA, please visit or call the Employment Standards Information Centre at 1‑800‑531‑5551 or TTY 1-866-567-8893. Information is available in many languages.

However they did not respond to the question about any provisions for migrant workers or the government’s plan to bring any change in the policy. 

Employees working in federally regulated jobs such as babysitters, federal government workers, bank tellers, long-haul truck drivers, lawyers, pilots, are entitled to up to 10 days of bereavement leave in the event of a death of an immediate family member’s death.

What Can be Available in Canada

Globalfaces Direct (GFD), a company that provides fundraising services in Canada and the US offers two days of job-protected bereavement leave per calendar year due to the passing of a family member. “These two days of bereavement leave are unpaid initially but become paid once an employee completes their probation period, which is usually 90 days. A significant portion of our contact center workforce comprises international students, and we also have recent immigrants in our HQ operations,” says Osas Ogiesoba, human resource business partner at GFD. 

Osas Ogiesoba, Human Resource Business Partner at GFD. (Contributed photo)

“We have encountered situations where our immigrant employees have needed to travel back to their home countries due to the passing of a family member. In addition to the two days of bereavement leave, we offer an option for unpaid leave of absence to provide further support and flexibility. We work closely with the individual to ensure they have the time they need to be with their families. Furthermore, we assist them by providing a Record of Employment (ROE) to facilitate their application for Employment Insurance (EI) if they are eligible,” added Ogiesoba. 

What if You Need More Days

“ESA does not ensure that employees get paid leave. It is up to the employers to decide if they want to grant paid leave to the employees in such cases,” explained Christopher Achkar, an employment and litigation lawyer who works with both employees and employers regarding all their employment law needs.

Two unpaid days under the ESA and up to ten days for federally regulated jobs might not be enough for all, Achkar agrees. “If you have to travel to care for a family member or deal with such matters and leave, you may look into the Human Rights Code and Canadian Human Rights Act.” Because according to these Code and Act, employment is protected from termination when and if the employee requires accommodation, particularly for family status needs, in this situation. 

Christopher Achkar, an employment and litigation lawyer. (Contributed photo)

“We understand that many of the employers are small businesses with limited resources. They want to be careful before making a decision in such cases.” For employers to create a more inclusive environment in the workplace, Achkar suggests, “Be careful before you say yes or no. Because it can open up human rights issues. In the end it may become so much more expensive than acting haphazardly without seeking proper legal advice first.”

The Other Side of the Story

Aanal Suryawala, an HR manager, says bereavement leaves should be longer than three days.

“I think we should not discriminate, bereavement leave should be extended for all, regardless of who are immigrants or who have families in Canada. Because trauma hits everyone differently. We do not know what people are going through,” Suryawala adds, “I think three days are just not enough. Because the first three days are gone in shock, later you start figuring it out.”

“I have seen people in my company taking this leave every year. Out of compassion, I cannot ask them for proof but I can tell that they are not being truthful.” 

“But that should not stop us from making things better. There will be drawbacks, but we should focus on doing the right thing for our employees.” Suryawala concludes. (Suryawala’s company name is being withheld upon request.)

Support Needed for Mental Health

A study on death and mourning put forward how the bereavement process is more challenging for migrants as they are already caught up in a series of losses and bereavement regarding new environment, culture, family ties etc. Having to go through the bereavement process in a new country makes them bear additional burden to their losses. 

My coworker seeked therapy and said it helped her. “I could not find any free sessions, so I tried a service called Betterhelp. It helped me cope with the situation,” she said. But it’s been four years, I still think I am grieving.”

“There isn’t any law or act that advises the Canadian employers to ensure mental health support for the employees in such conditions. But we always encourage them to offer benefits if they can. Because ultimately it makes the employees happy which is positive for the business,” says Ackhar. 

This article was produced as part of an Inclusive Journalism Microcredential offered by New Canadian Media and Seneca Polytechnic. Learn more here.

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Ruhina Taskin has worked in both communications and journalism for more than five years. She has a Master's degree in Human Rights from Goldsmiths, University of London and is now based in Toronto. 

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