Old age insecurity

October 11, 2009

Sui-ping Yau has been living off of her savings since she moved to Canada nearly nine years ago.

Yau, 75, of Scarborough, and her husband ran a fast-food business in Sao Paulo, Brazil, for 40 years before moving to Hong Kong for seven years. They arrived in Toronto in December 2000.

Yau’s husband became ill three years ago and now resides in a nursing home.

“It’s been draining our savings to have to pay for the nursing home and as well as my expenses of living on my own,” Yau says.

The couple does not qualify for Old Age Security benefits, as the monthly stipend doesn’t kick in until you’ve lived in Canada for at least 10 years.

Liberal MP Ruby Dhalla has tabled a private members bill that aims to reduce the waiting time for Old Age Security to three years.

While private member’s bills rarely become law, and even less frequently generate much public interest, this one has sparked an uproar.

Dhalla notes that immigrant seniors are more likely than those born in Canada live in poverty.

And poverty among immigrant seniors is a problem that’s felt more keenly in Ontario — and Toronto in particular — than elsewhere in the country.


A disproportionate number of immigrant seniors settle here: 46% of new senior immigrants who moved to this country between 1991 and 2001, Statistics Canada reports.

Dhalla is no stranger to controversy. Most recently, the Brampton-Springdale MP resigned her post as Liberal multiculturalism critic in May, following allegations two caregivers who worked for her family were mistreated.

Her proposal has received scathing reaction not only from government members, but from members of her own caucus, the public and Canada’s largest non-profit seniors advocacy group (CARP).

While there has been support from various communities and organizations, emotional opposition and criticism from Canadians, who believe recent immigrants have not earned the right to access a government-funded pension program, have drowned out any cheers of support for the bill.

Many feel the proposal could leave a much smaller pie for Canadians who have toiled decades and now rely on the program in retirement.

Opposition in some circles has been tinged with anti-immigrant sentiment.

Even Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff and other members of her party have told Dhalla they would not be supporting the bill.

It is estimated the proposal will cost up to $700 million to implement.

And then there is Yau, who thinks the gesture is positive, but the plan is unworkable.

“If seniors could qualify for old-age benefits after three years, the expenses for the government would be very high and lots of people would be eligible.

“Three years is too short of a time to receive benefits,” insists Yau.

But Dhalla does have her supporters, including the Old Age Benefits Forum (OABF), which has 2,700 Canadian members.

“We support Dhalla’s bill because it rises to bring equality to all Canadian seniors no matter what gender or colour or race and conforms to the principal of equity because we feel the 10-year residency clause is unduly harsh,” says Balwinder Chahal, general secretary of the OABF.