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The global economy is in its deepest downturn since the 1930s. We have lost hundreds of thousands of good family-supporting jobs in the past few months alone, and the retirement security of millions of Canadians have been put at risk. The federal government has announced a review of the private pension plans under its jurisdiction and the Finance Department is holding a public consultation in Montreal on March 18. Workers plan to be there to voice their concerns, and on behalf of the 3.2 million workers represented by the Canadian Labour Congress, I am calling on Ottawa to respond to our pension crisis quickly and in a determined way.
There is a long tradition in Canada of our governments undertaking reviews of our patchwork system of pension regulations. This latest federal effort follows quickly on the heels of expert panel reviews of pensions in Ontario, Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and Alberta. No less than twenty such reviews have taken place in the past three decades.
Typically, these reviews agree our pension system needs work, that serious reforms are required, and that too many Canadians are ill-prepared for retirement. Studies are done, submitted, filed, then promptly forgotten. The tiniest of reforms are celebrated as breakthroughs, while the heavy work that would really guarantee Canadians' dignity in their retirement years is left undone.
Today, this defective process cannot be justified. Canada's seniors and soon-to-be retirees have suffered major losses and are terrified to open their pension statements. Too many seniors - particularly single women, First Nations, recent immigrants, and seniors with disabilities - continue to struggle on low incomes. Too many workers, particularly those in the low-wage service sector, can barely make ends meet now, let alone save for their retirement.
Those at the top of the economic heap tell workers with decent pensions to expect less, while demanding for themselves nothing less than gold-plated plans. For example, Gwyn Morgan, the former EnCana CEO, recently attacked the pension rights of auto workers in the business press. He does so while sitting on a pension of $1.8 million a year that EnCana estimated in 2007 would cost $26.5 million to fund.
Canadian pensions are truly at a crossroads. Where we go next depends on the pension values that influence decision-makers. It is now Ottawa's turn to answer an age-old question in pension policy: do we move forward together, or will the government force everyone to fend for themselves? For the last two decades at least, the second set of values has won out on Parliament Hill. This hasn't always been true. The Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security and adequate workplace pensions are a reminder of what's possible when Canadians move forward together.
The Canadian Labour Congress is calling upon the federal government to enhance coverage of public pensions in order to reduce our reliance on speculative financial markets for economic security. We also want a national pension insurance fund to ensure that pension plans aren't collateral damage when employers go bankrupt or when the financial industry sells defective investment products.
We believe that these proposals will ensure that Canadians enjoy the secure pensions that they have worked so hard to achieve, and which will allow them to retire with dignity. If we allow a select few to hoard the pension wealth, and allow more Canadians to fall through the cracks, the consequences will be dire for many of our nation's citizens.
Decision-makers in Ottawa must embrace the right pension values. They can be sure that workers will be demanding they do so.
Ken Georgetti is president of the Canadian Labour Congress.