President's Commentary: National Pensions Summit needed to explore all retirement security options

(16 Dec. 2009) - 'We need a National Pensions Summit that provides Canadians from all walks of life with an open forum to fairly explore and assess the viability of all options designed to improve retirement security for all Canadians.'  - James Clancy.

By James Clancy
National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE)

Ottawa - Finance ministers across the country are heading for Whitehorse to attend a meeting called by the federal government to discuss what has quickly become a key concern of Canadians – how to fix our pensions system to ensure retirement security for Canadian seniors.

The Harper government is calling the meeting a Pensions Summit. One has to wonder, however, how much attention the Conservatives want to draw to it considering the meeting is being held as far as you can get from the national media spotlight and at a time when most Canadians are preoccupied in preparing for the holiday season.

Despite what appears to be little enthusiasm by the government to seriously address the failings of our pensions system, it is a major issue for most Canadians. It deserves a much more public and transparent forum for discussion than a closed-door meeting of finance ministers a week before Christmas.

Canadians deserve and must demand a summit that would bring together government, business, labour and other stakeholders to develop real solutions to the retirement security crisis Canada is facing. We need to explore all options that will help us reach that goal – not just options presented to us by ideologically-driven politicians who continue to hold up the rough and tumble and unstable ‘market’ as the best vehicle to provide us with decent retirement security.

The markets have failed

In fact, Canada’s ability to provide retirement security for its citizens has been severely eroded over the past two decades as Canadians are being forced to rely more and more on private market solutions for their retirement security – solutions that have failed miserably.

I’m willing to bet dollars to doughnuts that coming out of the so-called Pensions Summit, the Harper government will be offering Canadians more of the same 'fend for yourself' approach to retirement security. We already heard the forewarning of this approach from the Conservative’s point person on pensions, MP Ted Menzies, who earlier this fall lectured Canadians that they need to take more responsibility for their own retirement savings.

There is support for this approach but you can’t help being skeptical of it considering where it’s coming from – the Canadian Bankers Association (CBA) and the mutual fund industry – those guys who we pay huge marketing and sales commissions to help us lose our RRSP savings in the market. Whose interests are they really looking out for?

The fact of the matter is market-driven ideological forces are preventing us from seriously considering our public pensions system as the solution to ensuring greater retirement security for all Canadians.

Public system a big success

This is unfortunate as over the years it has been Canada’s public pensions system that has created the tremendous gains we have made in overcoming poverty amongst elderly citizens and in providing our seniors with much better prospects for a dignified and secure retirement.

If we are not prepared to consider expanding our system of public pensions, poverty will once again become a fact of life for millions of seniors.

There have been numerous calls across the country in the last few months and a growing momentum of support to expand our public pensions system by increasing benefits under the Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and expanding Canada Pension Plan (CPP) coverage. Despite the negativity you are hearing from the Harper government and the financial services sector to these proposals, they are realistic, affordable and effective.

Expanding CPP, which is already mandatory, creates the biggest possible pool of contributors. It is national in scope and offers economies of scale with lower administration costs and investment management fees. For Canadian workers, it provides less risk, greater certainty, portability and increased benefits like spousal benefits, death benefits, disability benefits and inflation protection.

Collective commitment

Like all public programs and services, our pensions system is an important tie that binds us together as a nation. It is an expression of our collective commitment to one another and to the fundamental democratic principle that all citizens have the right to income security and dignity.

We must seize the opportunity that exists today and demand that our political leaders open up the pensions debate in a much more transparent manner. Closed door meetings of finance ministers that take place at the one time of year when Canadians take a short break from engaging in public policy debates are quite frankly not the best way to engage Canadians in real solutions to our pending retirement security crisis.

We need a National Pensions Summit that provides Canadians from all walks of life with an open forum to fairly explore and assess the viability of all options designed to improve retirement security for all Canadians. Given that opportunity, I’m convinced Canadians will make the right choice. 


James Clancy
National President


James Clancy is the national president of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE), one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE