This article was published by The Chronicle Herald on February 12th 2012. To see this article and other related articles on The Chronicle Herald website, please click here.
It’s been two weeks since Prime Minister Stephen Harper indicated in Switzerland that his government is thinking about changing aspects of Canada’s retirement system.
It was enough time to allow the NDP to organize a string of town hall sessions on the issue, but not long enough for people to finish reacting to the announcement.
About 40 people, including many seniors, showed up to vent their anger as the party held its first event on the issue at Cole Harbour Place on Saturday. The NDP pension critic, Ontario MP Wayne Marston, flew in to join MP Robert Chisholm (Dartmouth-Cole Harbour) for a Q&A, and both added a little coaching about how to protest the change.
“Seniors are the largest-growing demographic. You have political clout,” said Marston, urging people to send handwritten letters to Ottawa.
Marston said the idea of raising the age of eligibility for the Old Age Security Pension to 67 from 65, which was released along with Harper’s speaking notes at the Davos World Economic Forum in late January, is a “trial balloon,” not a solid plan. Marston said the idea is so upsetting that it’s distracting from the real issue: Harper’s planned cuts to the service sector.
“Have you ever seen a magician who waves his hand up here and picks your pocket down here?” he asked the group.
There were more comments than questions at the meeting, as some people wondered aloud why Harper addressed the issue from Switzerland, and others compared the reported $3-billion yearly savings in the possible OAS plan to the government’s other spending.
Others asked how the programs could be tweaked to protect the poorest seniors, and one woman wondered whether OAS has to be a universal program.
“There are an awful lot of really wealthy people,” she said.
The chair of the local chapter of the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, Alex Handyside, told the audience that the age of eligibility is an important tool to prevent poverty among the most vulnerable seniors, including many with disabilities. He said 50,000 social assistance recipients would be forced to live in poverty for two more years if the age requirement was changed.
“If the age threshold for OAS is to be raised to 67, we must do more to ensure that the 65-to-67 age cohort escapes poverty,” Handyside said. “Perhaps then some higher-income families with non-working spouses could wait just a little bit longer for the extra money that they’ve demonstrated they don’t really require.”
One couple said later that their concern prompted them to come to the meeting from Timberlea on just a few hours’ notice. Susan Doyle, 54, said that for 15 years she stayed at home with children, and then an ill mother- and father-in-law, missing out on her own pension.
Back in the workforce for about eight years now as a field technician, she started collecting toward a pension 2½ years ago but worried that the proposed changes might apply to her.
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty “has to give people more time to plan for their futures,” Doyle said. “I’m on my feet a lot. . . . For me to think about doing my job for another 12 years — well, I think it’s going to be really difficult to work to 67.”
Doyle and her husband have three adult children, two of whom have spouses, and most of them work on contract. The changing labour market, and the fact that their children probably won’t have pensions, are other reasons to worry about the OAS system, they said. The NDP’s next town hall meetings are all planned for Ontario, with Marston making stops in Toronto, Sault Ste. Marie and Brampton.