Stephen Harper Wants Canadians to Figure Out Retirement Themselves

Cross-posted from Huffington Post

This summer, we have witnessed a study in contrasts in how to tackle the looming issue of retirement security, one of the biggest social and economic issues of our time. One story happened here in Ontario; the other, at the White House.

The first story came in the form of a letter from Stephen Harper’s finance minister to the province of Ontario. The federal government, said the finance minister, will not help Ontario in any way in implementing the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP). It will not amend legislation. It will not allow access to the Canada Pension Plan’s (CPP) efficient administration system. It will not even share data with the province.

“Take a hike,” was the federal government’s basic message. We will not help you improve pensions unless you do it our way. And our way is simple: Canadians should do it themselves. Just figure it out.

There is no retirement crisis, says the Harper government. Never mind that our mutual fund industry has among the highest fees in the world, while our best public pension funds have among the lowest costs despite excellent performance. Never mind that the capital markets are increasingly tilted against the interests of ordinary people. Never mind that employers have been abandoning defined-benefit plans for decades. Never mind that some of the most credible researchers in the country — including Michael Wolfson, who built the federal government’s most sophisticated tools for modeling the retirement security system — have called for a significant enhancement to the Canada Pension Plan.

Meanwhile, south of the border, President Obama convened a once-in-a-decade event called the White House Conference on Aging. Thousands participated from across the country, including hundreds of members and the international leadership of my union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Among the key themes of the conference was retirement security.

Unlike the Harper government, President Obama acknowledged the challenge: “In today’s economy,” he said, “saving for retirement has gotten tougher.” Private pensions have disappeared and purely voluntary savings schemes tend to work mainly for the wealthy, not the lower or middle classes.

The outcomes from the President’s conference included a range of federal measures to enhance retirement security.

Perhaps most importantly, President Obama praised a growing tide of state government efforts to improve retirement. He also offered the federal government’s full support, calling on the federal labour department to issue rules to promote state-level pension innovations that will make it easier for workers to save for retirement in a secure and cost-effective manner. In other words, President Obama has taken a constructive and supportive position, in contrast to Stephen Harper’s on this important issue.

More and more states have stepped up to help fill the pension gap left from private-sector employers abandoning the space. Referred to by some as the “Secure Choice” pension, such initiatives are based on the idea that public-sector pensions could be the basis for solutions to the retirement security crisis in the private sector.

According to the Georgetown Center for Retirement Initiatives, five states have enacted legislation enabling state-sponsored retirement savings plans and at least half of U.S. states have considered proposals to either study or establish such a plan. This includes states with both Democratic and Republican leadership, including traditionally GOP states such as Kentucky and Utah.

Obama and dozens of U.S. state governments have figured something out that Stephen Harper hasn’t. Tackling the retirement security crisis requires collaboration and practical solutions, not partisanship and ideology. Ontario’s government, which is showing bold leadership by moving forward with the ORPP, has figured this out, too.

Practical collaboration is at the heart of Canada’s past successes in retirement security. Putting the Canada Pension Plan on a sustainable path in the 1990s required governments of three political stripes to work together. Building Canada’s world-leading public pension plans — including the Healthcare of Ontario Plan, which our union is proud to have helped found and continues to sponsor — required collaboration among employers, unions, governments and some of the best investment minds in the country.

The sooner we have a federal government that can put aside its partisanship and start to work constructively with others, the sooner we’ll have real pension solutions that will help workers, governments and the economy.


Dogs bring back memories at Whitby nursing home

Corinna lives and works in Pickering, Ontario running her own dog boarding and food business and for the last 12 years, has brought her dog friends in for visits at Taunton Mills long-term care home in Whitby.

Once a week for an hour, Corinna brings in dogs, some of which are elderly themselves and/or foster pets in need of a home, to visit with residents.

It’s all about the smiles she sees when the dogs visit, she says. “A lot of the residents immediately start talking about the dogs they had when they were growing up. They don’t necessarily remember their own name but they remember details about their dogs.”

Corinna and her dog Bowie

Corinna with her dog Bowie, 2010-2015

Animals have a soothing effect on many people, but Corinna cautiously avoids anyone who has discomfort towards dogs. She goes from person to person in a common room, visiting dozens of residents each time.

“For example, I have a German Sheppard who is trained to “go visit,” and sits next to the wheelchair so they can pat his head,” says Corinna. Then I tell him, “good visit, good visit. It’s not about me or chatting too much, it’s all about the interaction between the dogs and the person.”

When asked about what is about the dogs that helps the residents, Corinna says that for most of the seniors, it’s a way of remembering the past.

Like any person who works or volunteers in long-term care, Corinna finds herself emotionally involved with the environment.

She sees the same family members visiting and many of them remember the names of the dogs. “I become part of their lives and they know I’m making their relatives more comfortable during the brief hour I’m there with the dogs.”

When asked how long she sees herself continuing this positive role in the community, Corinna says simply, “I hope to be doing this as long as I have dogs.”

Showing Justin Trudeau hands-on personal support work

On June 19, SEIU Healthcare invited Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Justin Trudeau, and Thomas Mulcair to walk a day in a homecare worker’s shoes. Justin Trudeau was the first to accept the offer and he spent a day with Emily, a Toronto personal support worker who wanted to show him what her job is all about. Watch the result below.

Emily and Justin visited Antonietta, an 81-year-old Italian woman who lives alone. Without Emily, she wouldn’t be able to take good enough physical care of herself to continue safely living on her own.

Framed pictures of her family back home and here in Canada are laid out carefully across the fireplace mantel in her living room. “She has a supportive family,” says Emily. “Everyone does their part. Some clients have no one or no one to help.”

Emily is caring, funny, busy, and extremely hard-working. Like many PSWs, she works two jobs to be able to earn enough each month. She starts her personal support work in the early morning, and then at night, she helps her parents with cleaning contracts.

Her parents are seniors but can’t retire yet from their cleaning business. This is something that 30-year-old Emily is concerned about for herself. Most workers in the homecare field don’t have retirement security.

“The families are so grateful, they tell me ‘Emily, don’t leave!’” she laughs. In the video, she explains further, saying “I really do care for people, but I have to look after myself as well. We need a little bit of help and support and some kind of retirement security with some kind of pension. We’re humans too.”

Emily was happy to give Justin Trudeau an idea of what the life of PSWs is really like. Moved by the experience, he called PSWs “an essential part of our healthcare system but also communities.”

By 2036, nearly 1 in 4 Canadians will be a senior, and the need for homecare is only growing. Two million Canadians currently get care, and 500,000 have unmet needs. These are people like Antonietta; our family members, our friends, ourselves.

Clean home, cool brain?

Environmental Services and Houskeeping Week

It’s environmental services and housekeeping week here at SEIU Healthcare and it got me thinking about the role that organizing, tidying, and cleaning our spaces has on our day-to-day lives.

In a hospital or nursing home environment, the people who do environmental and housekeeping services are crucial to keeping the facilities clean and safe. They interact with patients and their families what they need and try to make everyone as comfortable as possible.

Imagine how much calmer we feel when we can see that staff is taking good care of a facility, and how unsettled we are if we can tell a building messy or disorganized, or hazardous in any way. Now imagine what kind of impact the cleanliness of our own homes and other social spaces must have on our mental health.

But unlike places with staff such as a hospital, we must do that work for ourselves, and that requires thinking about how much we want to do, how, and when. It’s easy to let things slip and not even notice. What kind of impact does that have on us?

Clutter in the home has been linked to emotional and mental issues. Meanwhile the actual exercise of cleaning at home can improve mental health by relieving stress and anxiety.

Maybe it’s the physical work, maybe it’s the sense of accomplishment, maybe it’s the practical benefits of having more space and knowing where things are, but it does appear that much like we would expect a nice clean nursing home when we visit, we would be happy to have the same at home. Whether that is achievable is another matter!

5 ways to cope when your kid moves out for school

Grace and her daughters

Grace, centre, with two of her children. Mira, 18, right, just moved out of the family home and into a student dorm for her first year of university.

Back to school can be an exciting yet troubling time for all. New and returning students suddenly have a lot to manage, but what about the families who go through a major life change as a result? We spoke to Grace, a single mom from Vaughan, Ontario who helped her eldest move out at the beginning of this month.

1.       Get a soundproof room and scream it out (physically or metaphorically)

Grace states simply:

“I’m dealing with loss. My daughter doesn’t live with me anymore.”

This feeling of loss causes a roller coaster of emotions. It’s important to recognize this, and forgive ourselves when we have a hard time managing.

Grace, who works full-time in SEIU Healthcare’s organizing department, used to manage her household of 4 with the help of 18-year-old Mira. Now that Mira’s moved out for university, she is adjusting to the reality of being a single mom without another adult in the house. Plus, the other kids are also dealing with the recent change.

“It’s okay to scream and shout at each other once in a while. Then sit and hug it out. You’re not a bad mom if you do that.” Grace also recommends a few sessions with a punching bag at your local gym.

2.       Ask for help

Parents may suddenly find themselves with a lot more work once an older child moves out. Putting aside one’s pride and reaching out for help can be one of the smartest things to do for good mental health during a life change.

“The best advice I got was to lean on people and allow them to help me because I was not created to do everything on my own,” says Grace.

She gave the example of asking her neighbours to help take care of the younger kids when Grace had to go to work and Mira to a job interview, just before school started up again. They spent the day with the neighbouring family, happily swimming and playing.

“I felt so safe knowing there was a security net.”

3.       Go with the flow

When school starts and the family unit changes, there is a lot going at once and it is difficult to process it all in a calm manner.

Grace recommends taking it easy and trying to not let things get on your nerves at home, for example around cleanliness, while everyone adjusts to the new living situation.

Perhaps things that normally are considered important for running the household can be temporarily downgraded in the name of sanity.

4.       Focus on new routines

That being said, with a new living situation generally comes a need to develop new routines. Grace says that focusing on this has really helped her feel grounded while dealing with her sense of loss.

She has made time to bond more with the other kids, and looks for new ways to do things at home. Her youngest, 5, now helps tidy up after he plays, for instance. Her 13-year-old helps make lunches at night.

5.       Keep in touch

When someone moves out after many years together, the whole household faces the change and each person deals in their own way. Keeping in touch using modern technology is a good way to figure out how to manage the new relationships that will emerge after a young adult moves away for school.

Even though the sense of loss is there, there is also opportunity. Grace points out that Mira and her 13-year-old daughter used to fight a lot at home. “Now, they miss each other,” she says.

Collectively, using some of these tricks and pointers, the family will adjust to the new way they do things—just as all new students must create new ways of doing things for themselves.

Hopelessness – the silent killer

Did you know one million people commit suicide every year? And another 20 million unsuccessfully try to take their lives every year? More people die from suicide than homicide, war or terrorism.

World Suicide Prevention Day

That’s why we acknowledge World Suicide Prevention Day on September 10. Out of 170 countries, Canada has the 70th highest suicide rate in the world. Canada may not have one of the highest rates in the world, but we don’t have much to brag about either. We need to do more work in suicide prevention and it starts at the individual level.

There are many ways we can look for signs if someone is suicidal. Sometimes suicidal people won’t ask for help, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want any assistance. Most people who commit suicide don’t want to die, they just want the pain to stop. The best way to prevent suicide is to identify the warning signs and take them seriously.

They may talk about killing or hurting themselves, talk or write a lot about death or dying, and look for ways to take their own life, such as buying a firearm.

A big sign of suicide is hopelessness. Many studies have proven that feelings of hopelessness is a strong predictor of suicide. Victims’ dark feelings overwhelm them. They believe they don’t have a future and have nothing to look forward to. They may even start writing a will, give away their belongings, and say goodbye to people.

There are a few things you can do if you know someone who could be at risk. First and most importantly, do everything you can to help them get the assistance they need. Call a crisis line for advice. Encourage the person to see a mental health professional. And be there for them. Don’t wait for the person to call you or even to return your calls. Drop by, call again, and invite them out to talk.

We need to do everything we can to ensure people who want to take their own life receive the help and treatment they need. After people receive treatment, their suicidal thoughts may disappear over time. Suicide can be a final decision but it doesn’t have to be.

If you know anyone who is at risk for harming themselves, please view this listing of Distress Centres to find the crisis hotline number in your community. For more information about suicide prevention, is an excellent webpage about suicide prevention. Also check out some new resources available to youth in Ontario.

“Just don’t let me handle the cash”


He said it, not us. Whether it’s a Tim Hortons’ till or the country’s coffers, a big part of politics is about who is the best person to manage Canada’s money. You have to look at who has it, who doesn’t, and how to pay for projects big and small.

Politicians tend to us the same words to appeal to voters. Families. Working class. Middle class. It can be difficult to distinguish between them.

No one likes taxes, but we certainly have to pay them in order to have the systems and infrastructure that we are proud of—and need—in Canada.

One of the most expensive budget items in the country is our healthcare system. Our current Prime Minister changed the healthcare funding formula to provinces and now healthcare costs and spending are increasing at levels higher than the amount of cash paid out by the federal government to help pay for it all.

This means provinces will continue to face a funding crunch. Sound familiar? We all depend on public healthcare. Hopefully the next Prime Minister will recognize that—and know how to manage the money.