A new LifeWorks study commissioned by the Alberta government says the province could be entitled to take $334 billion — more than half of assets in the Canada Pension Plan — were it to exit the national plan entirely and start its own fund. The figure has raised eyebrows in pension circles and big questions across the rest of the country: Can Alberta really walk off with half the CPP? And what happens to everyone else if they do? The Financial Post’s Ian Vandaelle breaks down what you need to know about the issue.
OTTAWA — Documents show some residential school survivors told Ottawa they didn’t want to “wear” a decision to raise the Canadian flag, as the government spent months mulling how to lift the Maple Leaf from half-mast.
Hoisting the flag became a source of debate last year after it was lowered for months following the discovery of what were believed to be the remains of 215 children at the former Kamloops residential school site in British Columbia last May.
Next weekmarks the one-year anniversary of that discovery using ground-penetrating radar by the Tk’emlúps te Secwepemc First Nation.
It sent waves of grief, shock and anger through the country. As Indigenous communities reeled and more non-Indigenous Canadians joined them, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ordered the flags lowered at all federal buildings, including the one atop the Peace Tower.
By June, federal officials were trying to figure out the timing to raise the flag, reaching out to Indigenous leaders and drafting up options.
“This is the longest time in Canadian history that flags have been at half-mast,” Crown-Indigenous Relations officials wrote in a briefing note released to The Canadian Press under access-to-information legislation.
How long the flag remains lowered is typically dictated by a strict set of rules. But when the federal government lowered it to honour Indigenous children who died and disappeared from the 140-year-long residential school system, the timeline for lifting it was not clear.
Ottawa was working to return the flag to full-mast ahead of Remembrance Day, documents show, which is what ultimately happened. The documents say survivors and those in the country’s national Indigenous organizations saw the need to raise the flag in order for it to be lowered on Nov. 8, Indigenous Veteran’s Day, and Nov. 11.
Among those consulted was the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s survivors’ circle. The group met last fall with Carolyn Bennett, the former federal Crown-Indigenous Relations minister before she was named to a new portfolio.
“Several participants mentioned that they did not want Canada to use this engagement to justify the raising of the flag to full-mast,” officials said in a summary of the meeting.
“They did not want to ‘wear’ that decision,” the summary said, adding Bennett signalled she understood and saw how not everyone agreed.
“Some said that they were not ready to see the flag go up to full-mast, others indicated that Canadians still needed to better understand why the flag was lowered.”
Officials recorded differing opinions on the national symbol and how the country planned to mark the finding of more unmarked graves.
“Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami officials reinforced the critical need to honour all the lost children (more than 6,000) and to sustain public awareness of the tragedy of residential schools,” the documents say.
“Officials from the Métis National Council also offered the suggestion that the flag be lowered to half-mast for a week each time a new residential school burial discovery is made.”
In addition, officials said the organizations felt even though raising the flag was complicated, the issue was one that “the Canadian government will need to resolve.” They also believed in the need for another “symbolic recognition at the national level” as a replacement if the flag were hoisted.
The office of the current Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister, Marc Miller, said in a statement it is working with the House of Commons, Senate Speakers’ Offices and other MPs to hoist the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation’s survivors flag on Parliament Hill in June, which is Indigenous history month.
It also plans to lower the Canadian flag every Sept. 30, the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation.
The Cowessess First Nation near Regina discovered 751 unmarked graves last year. Officials noted that Chief Cadmus Delorme “identified that this is a historic time for Canada” and “that with the number of residential schools, this issue will be present for years to come.”
Indigenous groups also urged governments to take meaningful action on reconciliation, and not leave it at symbolic gestures, the documents show.
Chief Harvey McLeod of the Upper Nicola Indian Band in Merritt, B.C., said recently that more debate is needed about what the flag represents to Indigenous people and Canadians, as opposed to talking how long it should stay lowered or raised.
“I see being more important is us continuing to have the dialogue to correct what was implemented in that plan that was the way to implement the vision of Confederation,” he said. “It was the vision of the salvation of us savages, us Indians, to incorporate us into general society.”
“We really have to roll up our sleeves and find a way of how we can be inclusive of people like myself.”
Congress of Aboriginal Peoples National Vice-Chief Kim Beaudin said he’s more concerned with justice for survivors than symbolic gestures from Ottawa.
“Quite honestly, we’re not really treated as Canadians either, right? Full-(fledged) Canadian citizens in our own country,” he said.
“A lot of times we’re treated like foreigners.”
One survivor of the Kamloops residential school said any gesture from the Canadian government on the flag is meaningful.
“Any recognition that Canada offers is good,” said Garry Gottfriedson, a 69-year-old poet who attended the institution from kindergarten to Grade 3.
“The smallest gestures are good. Any little gesture Canada can offer is a step towards healing.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 19, 2022.
— With files from Dirk Meissner in Kamloops, B.C.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press
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Albertans dread a Canada Pension Plan exit. Will Danielle Smith’s $334B claim fix that?
Premier Danielle Smith may have wanted Alberta to go it alone on pensions for more than two decades, but to fulfil her dreams she’ll have to convert a wary Alberta public.
Polls have shown Albertans clearly don’t dream her dream with her. Pick your pollster: it was opposed by a margin of 31 per cent to 60 in a Janet Brown poll last October, or 21 per cent to 54 in Leger this spring.
With numbers like that, it’s a heftier turnaround task than persuading a majority of Quebecers to separate from Canada after decades of unwillingness. Or, for a local example, getting rural and small-town Albertans to suddenly prefer NDP over UCP.
Smith has the benefit of the premier’s bully pulpit to tilt public opinion in her favour on this one, to persuade people as she’s been arguing since at least 2003 that Alberta has “the obligation” to opt out of the Canada Pension Plan, and pay much lower premiums for equal or higher benefits.
She has now also armed herself with some of the biggest, rosiest numbers ever wielded in all the years of hardened conservatives trying to turn the public tide on the pension issue.
Billions upon billions
At the centre of her new argument is that eye-popping figure, $334 billion, which a government-commissioned report estimates Alberta is entitled to if it wants to become like Quebec, and separates from CPP.
That’s one-third of a trillion dollars, or more than half the CPP program’s total assets in a fund that collects contributions and pays out pensions of every Canadian who lives in a province that doesn’t start with Q.
For perspective, the amount Alberta is claiming as its rightful share of CPP is more than triple the ransom amount that Austin Powers film villain Dr. Evil demanded from world leaders, with pinky diabolically extended to his mouth. (That’s after the not-good doctor realized $1 million wasn’t a sufficient ask).
It’s also nearly equivalent to the value of Alberta’s entire economy in a year.
Sovereignist leaders would say: separate, and “all this becomes possible.” Smith was musing Thursday about how all sorts of good becomes possible if Albertans agree to start their own nest egg with a $334-billion principal.
Dramatically slashed premiums! Larger paycheques! Higher benefits for seniors! Maybe a $10,000 bonus for retirees!
But the reality checks on the Lifeworks report’s central assumption rolled in almost instantly after the astronomical estimate rolled off the premier’s tongue.
It’s an “impossible figure,” says Michel Leduc, senior managing director of the non-partisan Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board, which stewards the assets for Canadians. While he maintains any province has the legal right to withdraw and start its own pension plan, he urged skepticism of the numeric claims.
If other provinces used the “alternate formula” and demanded their shares be paid out too, he explained, there would be a negative balance by the time Ontario, British Columbia and Alberta left. (Sorry, other provinces.)
While Smith attributed Alberta’s share to the hard work of Albertans, the Lifeworks report itself attributes about 80 per cent of the province’s claimed share to investment income — the amount CPPIB has made by investing contributions, most of that since the 1990s reforms that boosted CPP premiums but also made the pension board a global investment heavyweight.
If Alberta had its pension funds outside that larger pan-Canadian pool, it’s far from a given that it would have performed nearly as well all these decades.
One could hear a scoff in the voice of University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe as he spoke of the outsized hunk — half! — of the pension pie Alberta believes it deserves. “I think it was a little problematic that the government’s hanging its hat on half the CPP assets, which you think is kind of transparently unreasonable and not going to fly anywhere else in the country,” he said.
In Tombe’s own newly published paper, he estimates Alberta would be more reasonably entitled to 20 or 25 per cent of CPP’s present assets. CPPIB has not worked out its own figure, but Leduc said Tombe’s math is much closer to a realistic figure, though even that may be high.
The ultimate number that Alberta would scoop up if it actually pursues the Alberta Pension Plan dream isn’t Alberta’s to determine, or Lifeworks’ or Tombe’s or even CPPIB’s.
The federal government ultimately determines the asset transfer to a withdrawing province, likely in consultation with the other provinces.
The spectre of higher pension contributions in an Alberta-less CPP may soon attract ire in the rest of Canada. Alberta leaders have a long tradition of spats with Ottawa, but this pie-slice-haggling could draw in Smith’s fellow premiers.
But the $334-billion claim will resonate with a slew of people in this province. They have spent generations absorbing conservative rhetoric about how we hard-working, high-earning Albertans send billions of dollars to federal coffers in taxes and premiums, and get far fewer billions returned to us. When the Kenney government held a referendum that purported to demand an end to the equalization program, 62 per cent of voters said yes, a fact Smith often mentioned as she kicked up her rhetorical campaign Thursday.
But in a nod to public discomfort on the pension question, Smith doesn’t even want to commit to a referendum yet, which she’s long promised as a necessary prelude to an APP — and wouldn’t happen until at least 2025, Finance Minister Nate Horner explained to CBC News.
The premier instead appointed an engagement panel to see where public mood is on this. It will be helmed by Jim Dinning, the former provincial treasurer who helped negotiate the modern CPP in the 1990s, and who ran for the Tory leadership decidedly opposed to a candidate who promised an APP — but now says he views the idea as an “intriguing opportunity” that could bring massive investment potential into this province.
An Alberta nest-minder
That opened one massive unknown among the many unknowns on what Alberta’s pension plan would look like. Theoretically, the fund could remain managed by CPPIB, but that would have to be approved in legislation by the Ottawa and other provinces that Alberta wishes to spurn here.
Smith could alternately task the Alberta Investment Management Co. (AIMCo) to manage Albertans’ pensions, but that body has not brought in nearly as sterling returns as the federal wealth manager, and is more susceptible to political intervention than the way CPPIB is set up.
To the many Albertans who are unsettled or spooked by the idea of abandoning the stability and reliability of the Canada Pension Plan, Smith is reassuring them they’ll be guaranteed the same benefits or better, and the same contribution rates or better.
She emphasizes the better, and purports there are 344 billion reasons to believe her on that.
There aren’t nearly as many reasons to question that number. But there are several, and when you add in all the uncertainties and risks that surround this monumental go-it-alone leap Alberta’s premier is proposing — well, that figure is probably pretty large as well.
Alberta wants to leave the CPP: Can they do that and what does it mean for the rest of Canada?
In short, yes, but we haven’t been down this road before: no province has left the Canada Pension Plan since its inception in 1966. Quebec never joined up with that pact, mind you, so it’s an outlier that has had its own provincial pension plan from the get-go. From there, life gets more complicated: Under the Canada Pension Plan Act, a province would need to give three years notice to the feds that it intends to exit CPP, enact its own legislation within one year of that notice, and prove its own made-at-home pension plan was roughly comparable in terms of providing that safety net. So, not a swift process. And in Alberta’s case, it’s by no means a done deal. The provincial government plans to consult with residents into early next year to gauge their appetite to leave the plan, with the results determining if a referendum is held sometime in 2024.
So they can leave — but why would they want to?
It boils down to a few things, all of which go hand-in-hand: demographics, economics and a lingering sense of Western alienation. On the first point, Alberta skews young — 66.2 per cent of those living in the province are between the ages of 15 and 64, according to the 2021 census, putting it above the national average of 64.8 per cent. That means more contributors to the plan, rather than those collecting benefits, with the province reckoning it can save somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 billion a year by repatriating its share. The latter two points have been bedfellows for decades: generations of Alberta politicians have griped about the province over-contributing to so-called have-not provinces through equalization payments, mostly due to the province’s resource wealth, and thus there’s always been a simmer of discontent with allowing Ottawa to control the purse strings.
So what happens now?
We wait and see. With those consultations underway and a referendum possibly in the offing, there’s no chance Alberta leaves CPP until 2027 at the earliest, which, wouldn’t you know it, coincides with the province’s next scheduled general election. Political seas change, and all that, so who knows what will have happened by then.
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