Articles by: Claire TremblayClaire Tremblay
Claire Tremblay is a lawyer and feature writer for Ottawa Life Magazine. She has ten years experience as a journalist in Canada and Australia including five years as the municipal affairs reporter at a major Sydney metropolitan newspaper. She made her start in journalism in outback Australia covering cricket and horse and dog races. Since then she has written for The Ottawa Citizen, Ottawa Business Journal and The Sydney Morning Herald. Claire has travelled to 22 countries mostly in Europe and Asia.

Swedish Film Masterpiece to Be Screened on Friday Night at Library and Archives Canada

February 5, 2013 11:20 am
Swedish Film Masterpiece to Be Screened on Friday Night at Library and Archives Canada

It’s a rare coming-of-age movie that appeals to the heart and mind, but that is exactly what the latest Swedish contribution to the Baltic-Nordic Film Festival sets out to do – and achieves magnificently.

Simon and the Oaks (2011), to be presented by Swedish Ambassador Teppo Tauriainen, is a satisfying film that movingly explores the intellectual flourishing of a young man amid the genocide of Nazi Germany. Simon Larsson (Bill Skarsgård), an aspiring intellectual, feels out of place in his loving but working-class family on the outskirts of Gothenburg. All this changes when Simon meets Isak Lentov (Karl Linnertorp), the son of a wealthy Jewish bookseller fleeing Nazi persecution. A wonderful universe opens up for Simon as he encounters books, art and music in the home of his new friend. In return, Isak draws comfort from learning to work with his hands as he helps Simon’s father build boats.

Soon, the specter of Nazi Germany casts a shadow over the lives of the two young men. When Isak faces trouble at home, he is taken in by Simon’s family and the two households slowly merge and their destinies connect in unexpected ways as war rages across Europe. Based on the bestselling novel by Marianne Fredriksson, Simon and the Oaks – in Swedish with English subtitles – is a movie that leaves an indelible impression long after the film has ended.

Simon and the Oaks screens at 7pm on Friday, February 8, at Library and Archives Canada, 395 Wellington Street. A reception hosted by the Embassy of Sweden will be held after the film screening. Tickets are available at the door.

All Photos: Dan Lausten

Pensions & Peace of Mind: To Pool Or Not to Pool?

August 2, 2012 10:07 am
Pensions & Peace of Mind: To Pool Or Not to Pool?

Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs) are Canada’s latest pension-planning tool.

To pool or not to pool? That is the question – at least among Canada’s retirement experts. Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs) were proposed last November by the federal government and are intended to provide workers within small and medium-sized businesses — as well as the self-employed — with a simple low-cost, way to save for retirement. But are they right for you?

Your retirement income will be made up of several pieces. For most Canadians, the major income sources will be the Canada Pension Plan and Old Age Security, company pensions and Registered Retirement Savings Plans, non-registered savings and amounts in a Tax Free Saving Account and maybe an inheritance or the proceeds from the sale of a home.

But government research says that almost two-thirds of Canadians are expected to have insufficient retirement savings. (Around 60 per cent of Canadians have no workplace pension plan.) And while Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs) started out in 1959 with a focus on retirement, they are increasingly used for other purposes – buying a first home or going back to school, hanging a big flat-screen TV on the wall, or simply as temporary savings to help escape winter’s chill. And many Canadians don’t use the savings capacity that RRSPs provide, perhaps thinking they can save later. But that leads to choosing potentially risky “catch-up” investment strategies.

RRSPs started out in 1959 with a focus on retirement, they are increasingly used for other purposes.

Traditional pension plans – whether they provide a “defined benefit” that pays you a known percentage of your salary after you retire or use “defined contributions” to build an investment nest-egg — impose significant management and reporting duties on employers. And while large employers can hire staff or consultants to do that, smaller employers need a simple “off the shelf” approach. Increasingly, employers have used “group RRSPs” to fill that role. But because workers can withdraw RRSP funds for any reason, group RRSPs may not meet employers’ or workers’ retirement funding objectives.

PRPPs attempt to bridge this gap between traditional pensions and RRSPs by providing pensions that focus on retirement income, without the administrative complexity of traditional pension plans or the higher cost of “retail” RRSPs. (High management expenses, lower returns), PRPPs represent a “wholesale” model with much lower costs that are normally only available through pension plans for large companies.

PRPPs will be administered by licensed providers – probably banks and life insurance companies – since they already provide similar services to group RRSPs and pension plans. Other providers, like large pension plans for teachers and government employees, might also be permitted to run PRPPs.

Employers will automatically enroll workers, but workers will have the right to opt out at any time. Rules that are still being developed by Finance Canada may allow workers to be automatically re-enrolled at a later date, again with an opt-out right. The idea is that even if they aren’t prepared to contribute today, workers should be given the opportunity to review that decision periodically, rather than opt out now, only to find that they “never got around to saving” when they reach retirement age.

Plans will offer a limited number of investment options, so that consumers aren’t overwhelmed by too much choice — what international research has called “paralysis by analysis.” Investment options will have to be designed to allow the creation of a “prudent portfolio.”

Life Cycle investing gradually adjusts the mix of investments to become more cautious as we age.

One likely approach to investments is the use of “lifecycle” funds as a default investment option. These arrangements gradually adjust the mix of investments to become more cautious as we age. The rationale is that bonds are more likely to produce secure and stable retirement income, so the investments held in your plan should better match your income needs as you approach and move into your retirement years. For instance, if you’re 25 when you enter a lifecycle fund, the investments might be 75 per cent in stocks, and only 25 per cent in bonds. By age 65, the mix might have shifted to 35 per cent stocks, and 65 per cent bonds. If the rules allow you to draw your retirement income from the PRPP, the investment mix might be 20 per cent stocks and 80 per cent bonds by the time you’re age 80.

In Quebec, Sun Life Financial, one of Canada’s largest insurers, has already mapped out the structure of its Voluntary Retirement Savings Plan (VRSP, the Quebec version of the PRPP) product. Sylvain Bouffard, director of public affairs for Quebec at Sun Life, said the VRSP product would give two-million Quebecers access to a retirement savings plan. “The VRSP will give us a chance to reach them,” Bouffard said, adding Sun would “offer lifecycle funds as a default investment option.”

In addition to automatic enrolment and default investment options, PRPPs will probably be designed to permit your contribution rate to increase automatically over time. The logic is that starting to save gradually allows you to adapt more easily to any change in your take-home pay, and to develop smart savings habits. And as with simply participating in the plan, you’ll be able to opt out of automatic increases in your contribution rate or select a higher or lower contribution rate, as well as choose different investment options.

Not everyone is convinced that PRPPs are a good idea. Some prefer RRSPs and the ability to withdraw funds for purposes other than retirement. Others suggest that defined benefit plans are better, but if employers won’t offer them, that seems to be a moot argument. Similarly, some have argued that expanding the Canada Pension Plan would provide the best option.

Not everyone is convinced that PRPPs are a good idea.

While Canada’s Finance Ministers unanimously agreed, in December 2010, to move forward with PRPPs, so far only the federal government and Quebec have taken action. Of course, the creation of the Pooled Retirement Pension Plan is also contingent on the support of the provinces. The federal Bill C-25 creates a PRPP framework, but it will only apply directly in workplaces that are subject to regulation by the federal government: banking, airlines, railways, shipping and communications. Most of these industries already have pensions. For other types of businesses, the provinces will need to enact legislation and set up their own licensing and regulatory regimes for the PRPP framework to fully come into effect. That may be where the headaches come into it.

Bill C-25 has stuck in the craw of several provinces, including Ontario. The Ontario Government made its displeasure clear during its 2012 budget slamming PRPPs as an inadequate solution to Canada’s pension savings crunch. Ontario stated the presence of PRPPs would fail to boost the total number of Canadians with a registered pension plan (RPP) – it would just add another product into the mix. (A mere 38 per cent of all employees had an RPP in 2008 – the majority of them (84 per cent) in the public sector. Just 25 per cent of private sector employees had an RPP that year.) Ontario favours enhancements to the existing Canada Pension Plan, and seems to want CPP expansion at the same time as any adoption of PRPP. Ontario has also expressed concern that the employees’ contributions might not be accessible in cases of financial hardship.

While federal, provincial and territorial governments have committed to considering modest and gradual changes to the CPP, what those terms mean is unclear. And importantly, changes to the CPP require the consent of 2/3 of the provinces with 2/3 of the population. (Those fractions include Quebec, even though it runs its own, broadly parallel, pension plan, the QPP.) So it isn’t clear that agreement to amend the CPP is likely in the near term.

Quebec has had a warmer response to the federal legislation – which is seen as a solution to Quebec’s low retirement savings rate. The provincial government estimates 30 per cent of workers, mostly in the $20,000 to $60,000 earning bracket, have no retirement savings at all. Starting in 2013, Quebec will implement its VRSP. All employers in the province with five or more employees with no existing pension plan or group RRSP will be obliged to enroll staff in a pooled plan. Companies with fewer than five employees, the self-employed and individuals would also have the choice to participate. Participating employers wouldn’t be required to contribute. And under the Quebec model, employees would be able to withdraw their own contributions under certain conditions.

Frank Swedlove, President of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association

While the provinces’ reaction has been mixed, the reaction from Canada’s small and medium businesses is mostly positive. A poll conducted by Leger Marketing in January 2012 on behalf of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA) shows 68 per cent of small and medium enterprise owners (SMEs) are interested in providing PRPPs. Over 800 companies were surveyed in the poll. Two-thirds of employers interviewed also believed employees would embrace the opportunity to contribute to a PRPP. The CLHIA represents the vast majority of Canada’s life and health insurance industry; its members manage more than two-thirds of Canada’s private sector pension plans. Frank Swedlove, president of the CLHIA, said the poll shows that “these savvy employers know a good thing when they see it.”

“Small and medium-sized business executives are ready to embrace PRPPs as they look for new ways to keep employees and attract new people,” says Swedlove. “We are on the cusp of making a fundamental shift in the pension landscape.”

Another sign of employer support of PRPPs is the 73 per cent of SME executives who indicated they would not only provide PRPPs to employees but would “look at ways their business could contribute to the plan over and above what the employee puts into it.” Under the current legislation, it is not mandatory for employers to contribute to the PRPP.

Although it is unclear whether all Canadian provinces will adopt legislation to implement PRPPs, one thing is certain. Despite its pros and cons, the mere concept of Pooled Registered Pension Plans certainly has Canada’s pension world talking.

Affordable Pharmacare: The Case for Generic Drugs

August 1, 2012 4:33 pm
Affordable Pharmacare: The Case for Generic Drugs

Increased generic drug use can save Canada’s health care system money.

If you are going to be sick in Ontario, it pays to get the “right” disease. Take John Colmar of Belleville, for example. In July 2010, Colmar was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer and prescribed Sorafenib. Typically, Health Canada steps in to cover part or all of the costs of medication – but Colmar was out of luck. Health Canada approved Sorafenib for some types of cancers, but not for Colmar’s: acute myeloid leukemia. This bureaucratic sticking point meant that Colmar had to pay the entire $8,000 monthly bill for medication out of his own pocket. Colmar had not, according to Health Canada regulations, contracted the “right type” of cancer.

Not getting the “right” disease (and prescription to match) which met Ontario’s drug assistance plan criteria literally shortened Colmar’s life. Or as Colmar, a businessman, father and grandfather said at the time: “I can live 10 years with it (Sorafenib) or 10 days without it.” Once Colmar’s health insurance and savings ran out, he had to live without it. He died months later. Worse, Colmar’s situation was not and continues not to be an isolated one. In its national report card in 2010, the Cancer Advocacy Coalition of Canada reported cancer patients were remortgaging their homes to pay for cancer drugs. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates cancer drugs cost an average of $65,000 a year per patient. One in 12 Canadian cancer patients (like Mr. Colmar) in 2010 were not able to access the cancer drugs necessary to prolong life.

Why are some Canadians like Mr. Colmar denied access to medical services or treatments? The reason, like with so many aspects of life, is money, or more precisely the lack of it. The pharmaceutical or service is expensive and with burgeoning healthcare costs in Canada something has to go. Services and drugs are delisted or removed from health care coverage by the province. Sometimes delisting occurs due to safety concerns, but more often than not, as in Colmar’s case, the reason is financial. And with health care spending rising faster than inflation and population growth, delisting can be expected to continue for some time to come. Spending on health care reached 11.6 per cent of Canada’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2011, slightly down from an historic high point of 11.9 per cent in 2009 and 2010. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information (CIHI), total health care spending in Canada reached $200.5 billion in 2011, growing by $7 billion in the same year.

Generic drugs cost substantially less than their brand-name counterparts and save governments and patients millions of dollars

Clearly, cost containment is necessary. In the case of pharmaceutical drugs at least, the use of lower-cost generic drugs – that is, pharmaceutical copies of brand-name drugs manufactured after their patent protection has expired – is one solution. Lowering the cost of the drug part of the health care equation might result in less delisting and tragedies like Colmar’s.

Why are generic drugs the answer? They cost substantially less than their brand-name counterparts and save governments and patients millions of dollars. A 2008 report by the Canadian Competition Bureau called Benefitting from Generic Drug Competition in Canada: The Way Forward, suggested changes to the way governments and private insurance plans pay for generic drugs could save Canadian taxpayers up to $800 million a year. Generic drugs have, according to the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association (CGPA), saved Canada’s health-care system nearly $26 billion since 2007. A Columbia University study found that every dollar invested in new medicine yields seven dollars in savings to the health care system by reducing hospital, physician and home care costs.

Better yet, the use of generic drugs is increasing. Last year, generic drugs filled 69 per cent of all prescriptions paid for by the Ontario government. Between 2006 and 2007, generic drug expenditures increased by more than 20 per cent to $4.1 billion. (That amount is expected to increase further as several highly prescribed drugs are scheduled to come off patent in the coming years.) As the use of generic drugs has expanded, so too has the range of prescription drugs available through Ontario’s drug plan. Ontario added 186 new brand-name and generic drugs and 49 cancer drugs to its Ontario Drug Benefit Program’s formulary from January 2006 to June 2011.

Jim Keon, President of the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association (CGPA), says a wide availability of generic prescription medicines is essential to sustainable health care. The CGPA represents manufacturers, distributors and suppliers to Canada’s generic pharmaceutical industry. “Generic drugs are providing excellent value for Canadians, and those savings are increasing,” Keon says. “In fact, generic drugs are the only component of Canadian health care where costs are actually decreasing.” Growing the generic drug market would, according to Keon, result in even more benefits to Canadians.

In 2010, the Ontario government announced plans to increase access to generic drugs by reducing their cost. The centerpiece of the plan was to lower the cost of generic drugs purchased out of pocket or through private employer drug plans by more than 50 per cent. By 2014, the government stated that generic drugs in Ontario would be sold for no more than 25 per cent of the cost of the original brand-name drug.

For complicated reasons, Canadian prices for generic drugs are among the highest in the world. A study released by the Fraser Institute (entitled Canada’s Drug Price Paradox 2010) compared 64 generic drugs available in Canada and the United States. Canadian prices, it found, were on average 90 per cent higher than their American counterparts. Interestingly, there were also price discrepancies between specific drug categories. For instance, for generic drugs that were more expensive in Canada, prices were an average of 153 per cent higher than in the United States. Conversely, for generic drugs that were less expensive in Canada, prices were an average of 38 per cent lower than in the United States. Retail prices for generic copies in Canada were 73 per cent of the price of their brand-name medicine, compared with just 17 per cent of the brand-name medicine in the United States.

It is clear that generic drugs provide part of the solution to Canada’s health-care expenditure woes.

The Ontario government points the finger at pharmaceutical rebates. Generic manufacturers, the government maintains, were paying pharmacies to encourage them to stock their drugs. The manufacturers would provide pharmacies with a rebate of an average 40 per cent of the invoice price. That is, pharmacies obtained drugs at a low wholesale price. They then invoiced the government for the same drugs at the significantly higher provincial drug formulary price. Pharmacies, the government maintains, then kept the savings to the tune of $240,000 a year on average, based on 30,000 generic drug prescriptions a year.

To counteract this effect, the government announced in April 2012 that it would lower the provincial drug formulary price it pays for the top 10 generic drugs to 20 per cent of their brand-name equivalents. This is lower than the current rate of 25 per cent of the brand-name equivalent price. (Other provinces have also followed suit in a bid to drive down the price of generic drugs. Quebec’s health-care policy, for instance, requires the province to match the lower generic drug price available in Canada.)

However, according to Keon, the Ontario government’s actions come with a price tag. Suddenly yanking down the cost of generic drugs, Keon maintains, comes with serious repercussions. Lower returns on generic drugs may act as a disincentive to pharmaceutical manufacturers. This could, in turn, jeopardize the supply of generic medicines in Ontario and Canada.

“The Ontario government must recognize that further price cuts will result in fewer cost-saving generic drugs coming to market, and at a later date,” says Keon, adding the changes were implemented without consultation with the generic drug industry. “That will leave the Ontario government and other payers paying for the brand-name drug.”

Economic repercussions might also be felt inside the industry. Ontario-based generic drug companies employ 8,000 people in research, development and manufacturing and export more than $1 billion worth of products each year. Further, Keon adds there are plausible alternatives to the Ontario government’s current policy regarding generic drugs. The Drummond Report on the state of Ontario’s public services – which coincided with the release of the 2012 Ontario Budget in March – is one. The report made several recommendations regarding pharmaceuticals. These included using an evidence based approach to decisions regarding coverage of new brand-name drugs, permitting pharmacists to substitute less expensive alternatives to prescriptions and to administer injectable and inhalant medicines. Another recommendation would allow pharmacists to prescribe for minor ailments.

Keon also proposes Canada increase generic drug use to the levels found in the United States. This alone would save Canada $1.6 billion in prescription drug costs in the first year alone. Generic drugs fill 54 per cent of prescriptions in Canada. In the United States, they fill 75 per cent of all prescriptions. “It is clear that governments, employers and patients could save significantly more if generic utilization rates in Canada reached levels achieved in the United States,” said Keon. To this end, Keon recommends providing incentives to generic drug producers. Ensuring that new generic drugs are quickly added to the government’s drug plan formulary is one such incentive. Others include providing incentives for generic drug firms to challenge invalid or non-infringed drug patents. These steps would “reduce health-care spending with no adverse impact on patients,” says Keon.

However, no matter what approach is taken, it is clear that generic drugs provide part of the solution to
Canada’s health-care expenditure woes. Unless a solution is found and found fast, premature and unnecessary deaths like that of Colmar will continue. Preventing them is worth any cost.

Beyond Old Age Security

June 21, 2012 8:56 am
Beyond Old Age Security

Sifting through the minefield of pension terminology is not for the faint of heart. With terms such as defined DB plans and DC plans right through to DPSPs, EPSPs, group and individual RRSPs, LIRAs, LIFs and TFSAs, to name but a few, retirement pension plans can be confusing to the uninitiated. However, a basic pension vocabulary is a must and may make the difference between hitting pay dirt or retirement penury. For starters, DB plans refers to defined benefit plans and DC to defined contribution plans. A DB plan means future returns on the pension plan are guaranteed regardless of the fund’s financial performance. A DC plan, on the other hand, is one in which the employer’s annual contributions are specified but at the end of the day the pension received depends on the performance of the market. Knowing which best suits your individual situation can literally make or break the bank.

The ABC of retirement terminology starts with Canada’s two federal public pensions – Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) received by 95 per cent of Canadian seniors and which, like universal health care, are fundamental to Canada’s social safety net. (Around five million Canadians receive OAS while another 1.8 million are in receipt of GIS.) However, while OAS and GIS are familiar terms to Canadians, the exact details as to how they operate, the benefits received and eligibility requirements remain less clear. Adding to this are the changes announced in the March 2012 Federal Budget that will increase the age of eligibility for the OAS from 65 to 67 years of age.

Changes to the OAS were driven by Canada’s pension crunch. There will be nearly twice as many seniors in 2030 as there were in 2011, growing from 5 million to 9.4 million. At the same time, there will be fewer taxpayers to support them. Put another way, sometime between 2015 and 2021, the number of seniors in Canada will outstrip the number of children (under 15 years) for the first time ever. The result, according to the Government, is that Canada can no longer maintain OAS payments at their current level. With the average retirement age in Canada at 61.1 years, the trend isn’t about to end anytime soon. Statistics Canada projects the number of persons aged 65 years and over doubled between 1981 and 2009 and will double again by 2036.

Frank Swedlove, President of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association

So what are the changes to the OAS and how might Canadians best prepare for them? First, some background. Old Age Security, Canada’s single largest federal program, was founded in 1927 to provide a means-tested pension for men and women 70 years of age and over with little or no income. From that time to the present, the pension has undergone several changes. In 1952, the OAS was a $40-a-month universal, flat-rate pension for Canadians 70 years of age and over. By 1965, the age of eligibility was moved to 65 over a five-year period to 1969. In 1971, the GIS, a tax-free income-tested supplement, was introduced to assist pensioners in receipt of the OAS but who had little or no other income. (The GIS is a benefit received on top of the OAS for seniors whose incomes are below $16,368 for a single person.)

In 1972, the OAS came closer to its current form with the indexation of benefits and income-testing. The handing down of the Federal Budget, however, marked a whole new era for the OAS.

The main change – the increase in age of eligibility – means all Canadians currently under the age of 54 will have to wait an extra two years to receive the benefit. The change to the OAS, worth more than $6,000 a year, will be phased in beginning in 2023 with full implementation by 2029. About one-third of all Canadians will be deeply impacted by the change.  According to a Bank of Montreal survey conducted in April 2012, 32 per cent of Canadians between the ages of 25 and 54 will rely on OAS and Canada Pension Plan and Quebec Pension Plan benefits as a major source of retirement income. That is, these Canadians will be reliant not only on Registered Retirement Savings Plans or RRSPs as their retirement mainstay, but on federal pension plans.

What does this all mean for that cohort of Canadians who will now have to wait an extra two years to receive OAS benefits? In brief, Canadians will have to take charge of their retirement years sooner and save harder and longer than ever.

The financial shortfall to be made up – around $13,000 in entitlements – may not seem much, but for those who are already ill prepared for retirement, it is significant. Figures from Statistics Canada for 2009 show that around 65 per cent of Canadians who are approaching retirement anticipate their retirement income to be adequate or more than adequate to maintain their standard of living. However, 19 per cent of Canadians expect it to be barely adequate and 9 per cent less than adequate. The loss of income received under OAS will fall particularly hard on this group of Canadians. That other income supplement provided through the Government, the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) intended for low-income seniors, can’t be counted on to provide much income relief. Just as the OAS is subject to clawbacks based on income, so is the GIS – but an even steeper clawback. The maximum amount received under OAS is $540.12 a month which begins to be clawed back for individuals with net income above $69,562 in 2012. The OAS clawback begins at a rate of 15 cents for every dollar earned over this amount. (Receipt of the OAS is eliminated at incomes above $112,772.) The GIS, on the other hand, is clawed back at 50 cents for every dollar of income above $3,500. Clearly, Canadians will somehow have to make up for the OAS shortfall – likely through setting aside extra amounts in private pension plans. TriDelta Financial estimates that in order to make up for the lost OAS income, the average Canadian in their forties will need to set aside an extra $45.00 to $50.00 per month for retirement.

Frank Swedlove, President of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association (CLHIA), says the OAS changes make “it clear that private retirement savings will become increasingly important for Canadians.” The CLHIA represents the vast majority of Canada’s life and health insurance industry whose members manage more than two-thirds of Canada’s private sector pension plans.

The main change – the increase in age of eligibility – means all Canadians currently under the age of 54 will have to wait an extra two years to receive the benefit.

Swedlove suggests pension plan innovations such as the Government’s proposed Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs) which “focus on allowing employees to save more easily at the workplace” will help Canadians “fill the gaps.” PRPPs are essentially group-administered

Registered Retirement Savings Plans (RRSPs.) Unlike RRSPs, where contributions are not mandatory and can be made on an ad-hoc basis, PRPPs require contributors to make regular mandatory payments through their workplace pension plan, often as a payroll deduction. Advocates of PRPPs claim it would offer a retirement savings alternative to the 3.5 million Canadians who don’t have any kind of registered pension plan through their workplace (such as a defined benefit pension plan or a group RRSP). Defined benefit pension plans or group RRSPs are often only available to employees who work for the government or large private employers. PRPPs would give self-employed individuals and employees or small firms an alternative to RRSPs or TFSAs by allowing them to tap into a large pension plan. The plans would be administered by insurers and other financial institutions. PRPPs came one step closer to becoming a reality in the Canadian workplace with the Federal Government’s tabling of legislation in November 2011.

However, critics of PRPP (including the Government of Ontario) worry that the compulsory nature of contributions might present financial difficulties for employees who face an unexpected or immediate financial hardship. The need to establish licensing and regulatory regimes for the new PRPPs, the cost of the plans and the prospect of PRPPs replacing other forms of retirement savings are also concerns. Either way, solutions to the retirement savings conundrum need to be found. Canadians literally cannot afford to count on the OAS or the GIS, both intended to be an income supplement, as their primary retirement income source.

Or as Swedlove puts it: “The publicly-funded Old Age Security (OAS) program and the CPP offer important forms of basic assistance. Given recent funding reforms, the CPP is recognized around the world as a successful universal DB plan. But OAS and CPP are not intended to be the only sources of retirement income for Canadians.” With the changes to the OAS, planning for a retirement nest egg starts now.

Education Series: Dr. Agatha Sidlauskas

June 20, 2012 9:28 am
Education Series: Dr. Agatha Sidlauskas

Known simply as “Doc,” Dr. Sidlauskas’ lifelong dedication to child development in North America and Europe culminated in her founding the Venta Preparatory School in 1981. Located a five-minute drive from Kanata, Venta specializes in drawing out the potential of gifted children. While most students are from Ottawa, the day and boarding school has attracted students from Bermuda, Hong Kong, Africa, Mexico and England to profit from Doc’s unique teaching philosophy.

Venta’s guiding principle is the cre-ation of an environment where children can “reach the full unfolding of their personalities to achieve their highest academic potential.” Class sizes are capped at 12 students per teacher and music, physical education and art are required courses. Admission to the school is based on an interview with the child and his or her parents, along with a pre-admission psycho-educational assessment. Paramount to Venta’s philosophy is the uniqueness of every child. Or as Doc puts it, “the child is not rigid. The child is a special and evolving creation that changes day by day.”

Venta’s guiding principle is the cre-ation of an environment where children can “reach the full unfolding of their personalities to achieve their highest academic potential.”

Venta’s founding is the end result of Dr. Sidlauskas’ passion for child psychology, a remarkable intellect, a survivor’s spirit and a lifetime that spans World War I, The Great Depression and World War II. After almost a century of living, Dr. Sidlauskas remains fluent in Lithuanian, German, Italian and French. (She learned English when she arrived in Canada at the age of 35.) Dr. Sidlauskas reads for up to six or seven hours a day (including books in Latin) and her house – located metres away at the foot of her beloved school – is filled with hundreds of books. Neuroscience and child psychology remain her reading matter of choice. Dr. Sidlauskas’ passion for children is palpable. Upon talking about “her children” and their unique talents, Doc’s eyes light up. Her intelligent and gentle demeanour is enhanced by a translucent smile.

Agatha Elisabeth Sidlauskas was born in 1914. After graduating with a Master’s Degree in Philosophy in her native Lithuania, Doc gained a scholarship to study at the Catholic University of Milan. There she completed a PhD in Child Psychopathology. In 1939, Dr. Sidlauskas returned to Lithuania. While preparing to defend her thesis on child psychology, World War II intervened.

In 1940, the Soviet Union occupied Lithuania and Russian police rounded up and persecuted academics and other achievers. “Lithuanians were thrown into the streets. The persecution was total,” Doc recalls. She lost several members of her family in the invasion and class warfare. Caught up in the turmoil, Dr. Sidlauskas’ academic career came to a standstill and she worked as an interpreter at the Italian embassy located in the Lithuanian capital of Kaunas. Despite her relative good fortune, Doc didn’t escape unharmed. She was, as she put it, “under the eye of the Russian police.

“The idea was that I would be helpful to them. I was a very active girl as an academic in Lithuania and a good person to indicate who was where.” The Russians hoped to use her as a lure. Doc was to arrange lunch dates and other meetings with Lithuanian high flyers and snare them for the Russian police.

Dr. Agatha Sidlauskas

Under constant threat of torture, Doc was interrogated by the Russian police for three weeks, who relentlessly demanded the names and addresses of her associates. Remaining steadfast, Dr. Sidlauskas told the “biggest lies of my life,” providing her interrogators with false leads and the names of academics she knew had already been “decapitated.”

Her deception soon became apparent and her only safe option was escape. Determined to save her life, the Italian ambassador lied to the Russians, telling them Dr. Sidlauskas was an Italian national and therefore under his protection. The ambassador smuggled her into Italy, where Doc worked for several years as a consultant child psychologist and educator. Finally, a whole new chapter in Doc’s life was about to begin. In 1948, Doc became one of 165,000 refugees Canada took in after the war.

Life was still hard. Unable to speak English but fluent in French, Doc settled in Montreal where she worked for two years as a domestic. Then came her big break – a one-year honorary fellowship at the Univer-sity of Minnesota, Minneapolis. After five years, Doc was granted Canadian citizenship and she moved to Ottawa. In 1951, Doc earned an assistant professorship position at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Psychology and remained there until her retirement in 1979 at the age of 65. Doc held several positions at the university including full-time professor, Director of the Child Clinic Programme and Chairman of the Department of Child Psychology. Dr. Sidlauskas increased her focus on the needs of gifted children. “At that time, there was nothing for gifted children. Nothing!”

In a testament to her untiring effort, Dr. Sidlauskas received $2 million to build a child studies centre at the university. Part of the grant money was used to purchase a 50-acre rural property (now the site of Venta) used for the summer program of the University of Ottawa Child Study Centre from 1958 to 1979. Doc later converted the property to found Venta Preparatory School.

Venta Preparatory School

From 14 students in the 1980s, Venta now has students from junior kindergarten to Grade Six and a complement of full-time staff. Despite retiring as Director of Venta in 1993 at the age of 80, Dr. Sidlauskas remains active as the school’s clinical director and as its driving force. She remains committed to her students whom she calls “my children.”

“Children are special creatures,” says Doc. “Because of this, the educational environment needs to be developed for the child and not the other way around with the child having to develop according to the educational environment.” Under Doc’s caring influence and guidance, children in Canada and beyond its borders are set to thrive for many years to come.

Greenstream Series: From Knowledge to Action

June 12, 2012 3:54 pm
Greenstream Series: From Knowledge to Action

Urgent action is needed on climate change and the time to act is now. That was the main message to emerge from an Arctic conference attended by the world’s top polar scientists in Montreal this April. The 2012 International Polar Year From Knowledge to Action Conference (IPY2012) saw more than 2,500 scientists from 47 countries work together with governments, civil society and indigenous peoples to find answers to a single pressing question. Climate change and modernization are altering the planet, especially the polar regions. Now, what do we do about it?

The conference opened with a reality check on the speed of climate change. Keynote speaker and former prime minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland stated that Arctic Ocean summer sea ice would likely completely disappear within 30 to 40 years. Ms. Brundtland has served as a UN climate change envoy and is the former head of the World Health Organization. The North and South poles are affected by climate change, with Antarctica losing ice and seeing warming ocean temperatures. The Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, could be seasonally ice-free in 10 to 30 years, according to the latest estimates from the scientific community. Ms. Brundtland called for governments to work together with the scientific community to come up with solutions to the challenges climate change presents. “Bringing science to bear on policy is very important,” Ms. Brundtland stated.

Dr. Martin Fortier

Dr. Martin Fortier, executive director of the ArcticNet Network of Centres of Excellence and member of the IPY2012 International Organizing Committee, said the conference reinforced “the fact that the Arctic is changing faster than we anticipated.” The planet as a whole,” Dr. Fortier said, “needs to prepare for the consequences but also the opportunities” associated with climate change. “Things are moving faster than we can adapt to and build policy around,” he added. “We need to continue the scientific monitoring but we also need to develop adaptation plans.” Such plans are of particular importance for indigenous circumpolar peoples, the first to feel the effects of climate change. Around 200 Aboriginal representatives attended the conference including Inuit, First Nations and Sami peoples from Norway.

Held over an intensive five-day period from April 22 to 27, the conference will certainly go some way toward finding some answers. Dr. Fortier said at any given hour of the conference, there were as many as 18 different sessions, ranging from ice melt to education and the cultural implications of climate change.

Although no formal resolution came out of the conference, many organizations expressed a renewed resolve to take action on climate change and modernization in the polar regions. Action forums consisting of panels of stakeholders from governments, Arctic peoples and the private sector discussed challenges associated with climate change, economic development and modernization.

Forum topics included creating conditions for arctic offshore oil and gas development, mining, shipping, sustainable polar fisheries and marine areas, building sustainable community infrastructure for the 21st century and generating and sharing future polar knowledge. “The forums helped initiate some very important discussions on how to translate scientific knowledge into policy or at least into more informed policy,” Dr. Fortier said.

The Arctic, which is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet, could be seasonally ice-free in 10 to 30 years.

Several organizations did, however, make major announcements at the conference. An open letter was released on the first day of the conference, signed by more than 2,000 scientists from 67 countries, calling for a moratorium on fishing in the Arctic Ocean until fish stocks are assessed. The letter by the Pew Environment Group was sent to the governments of Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia and the United States.

Also announced was the awarding of the $50,000 Weston Family Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Northern Research to Dr. Louis Fortier for his work on the impacts of climate change on the Arctic. Louis Fortier, scientific director of ArcticNet, holds the Canada Research Chair on the Response of Arctic Marine Ecosystems to Climate Change and is a professor at Université Laval (since 1989). A $1-million Arctic Inspiration Prize – to be awarded annually to recognize the application of Arctic knowledge and research into action plans that benefit the Canadian Arctic and its Peoples – was launched at the conference.

A recent poll showed 80 per cent of Canadians agreed that “northern research can help make informed decisions about the potential impacts of developmental progress in the North.” With Canada being one of the first Northern countries to feel the brunt of Arctic climate change, such research is needed now more than ever.

An Evening of Nordic Music

June 4, 2012 3:50 pm
An Evening of Nordic Music

Opera Swedish style is coming to Ottawa with a performance this week by one of that country’ most talented young opera singers.

Swedish mezzo soprano Josefine Andersson winner of the prestigious Jenny Lind scholarship will perform in Ottawa at An Evening of Nordic Music this Thursday. Andersson’s presence at the event a celebration of Nordic Music and culture is certain to make the evening a memorable one.  The winning of the scholarship puts Andersson in the ranks of one of the finest young opera singers in Scandinavia, if not the world. Since 1965, a scholarship has been awarded to the most promising soprano singer in Sweden in remembrance of Lind who was widely dubbed the Swedish Nightingale. Adding to the musical treat for the audience, will be Ms. Andersson’s musical accompaniment, Ms. Nigar Dadscheva, the recipient of the esteemed Ottawa Goldschmidt Scholarship for piano.

An Evening for Nordic Music will be held at the Mackay United Church at 39 Dufferin Road, Ottawa this Thursday, June 7 at 7pm. Tickets may be purchased online at www.swea.org/Toronto, by phone (613) 749 8727 or in person at various locations in Ottawa. Tickets are available at The Leading Note 370 Elgin Street (613 569 7888), the Crichton Cultural Community Centre and Books on Beechwood at 35 Beechwood Avenue, Ottawa.

A Business with Pop and DNA!

May 31, 2012 6:08 pm
A Business with Pop and DNA!

It began like many good ideas do – idling around the office printer. Ottawa-born-and-bred whiz kids and lifelong best friends Adrian Salamunovic and Nazim Ahmed (Naz for short) had already come up with one genius multi-million dollar business idea. And while waiting for a picture to emerge from a printer from the home office of their first business, they came up with a second.

Their first great idea was DNA 11. Founded in 2005, DNA 11 was personalized art at its finest. With DNA technology reaching its zenith, Adrian and Naz came up with the idea to turn photographs of a human being’s most personal trademark – our DNA sequence – into high art.

(The two were uniquely qualified to produce bioengineering art. Naz holds a degree in Molecular Genetics from the University of Western Ontario and worked for a California company specializing in biological imaging. Adrian had a decade of business technology marketing and design experience behind him.)

To add some sparkle, Naz and Adrian enhanced the DNA pictures with colour and filter effects and printed them on canvas, glass and carpets. The results were stunning. One New York client printed his DNA and that of his partner onto a glass screen waterfall situated in the penthouse patio overlooking the midtown Manhattan skyline. When the sun shone through the glass, it sent an array of coloured DNA light dots around the balcony and beyond. The sheer beauty and possibility of DNA’s bio-art made it destined to become a hit. DNA art also proved popular with dog owners, wishing to preserve memories of their much loved pooches. “When Nazim and I started this company we never imagined we would sequence the DNA of a dead Chihuahua,” quips Adrian. (Since then, the pair has added the DNA of “very expensive race horses” and a Bengal tiger to their non-human DNA list.) Clearly with customers sending online requests for DNA 11 art from as far away as Afghanistan, the idea had struck a nerve. And that nerve, to put it simply, was love.

“It’s about emotion,” explains Naz. “DNA art inspires a positive emotional reaction. For a person to have the DNA of their loved one, spouse or children or to have the whole family on a DNA portrait is about love.”

Co-founders Nazim Ahmed and Adrien Salamunovic. Photo Courtesy of CANVASPOP

Soon Naz and Adrian came up with a second application for their unique print product. While DNA 11 captured the essence of a person, CanvasPop distilled the essence of a moment. Founded in 2007, CanvasPop turns photographs, drawings or other images into fine art. The sunset at the cottage, a smile on a child’s face and the antics of a much-loved pet become immortalized through CanvasPop technology.

CanvasPop came to be while Naz and Adrian were cruising around the printer. A friend had asked the pair if their state-of-the-art printer could print some family photos onto canvas. And from there, CanvasPop was on its way to becoming a reality. CanvasPop now serves all of the United States and Canada, while DNA 11 sells in over 52 countries worldwide. Both companies now operate from the same Canadian headquarters in Ottawa’s Hintonburg/Westboro area. The site includes a DNA lab and a printing and shipping facility. A Las Vegas site  serves as U.S. headquarters for both companies and includes a 22,000-foot production facility. A third printing partner is located in the U.S. Both companies employ 45 full-time staff – more during the Christmas season. All employees except for the in-house laboratory manager work for both companies. Their success has been dizzying. “One word to sum up the last seven years is passion,” Naz enthuses. Adrian reveals that the secret to success is to “do what you are passionate about; if you do that, you will eventually succeed.”

Apart from passion, sheer elbow grease that secured their success. Or as Naz puts it: “We were 100 per cent committed to the vision.” This meant maxing out credit cards and “getting down to our last penny” and working day and night in Adrian’s apartment in the ByWard Market making their idea work. For months, Adrian and Naz hovered over computers, phones and printers so they could be as available as possible to their customers. For a couple of young guys in their twenties, resisting outside temptation wasn’t always easy. “We could hear people outside in the middle of summer partying and having fun and we were inside working,” says Adrian. “There is no such thing as an overnight success.”

So what prompted the original idea for DNA 11? The idea came about while doing what best friends do best – just hanging out. As Adrian explains it, “Being best friends, we spent a lot of time together. We were always looking for something we could both do that was interesting.” One evening at Nazim’s apartment, Adrian looked at a brochure of the bio-tech company for which Nazim worked. Inside were DNA pictures produced by a science lab. “Not being a scientist, I looked at the pictures from the perspective that they were just some cool-looking pieces of art,” Adrian recalls. The eureka moment came when they decided to take their own DNA samples just to see what they looked like. The pair took cheek swabs. Two weeks later, they received images of their DNA. “It was the first time I’d seen what my own DNA looked like and I thought it would look cool enlarged,” said Adrian. It was one of those moments of serendipity that turned into marketing gold. After running the idea past friends and family, the pair decided to commercialize the concept. They poured their all their sweat equity into this idea, not knowing if it would work. “It didn’t seem like anyone in the mainstream knew about DNA art,” said Nazim. “Even though we self funded the website to the tune of millions of dollars, there was nothing more challenging than selling art made of DNA to someone who has never met you.”

However, with their complementary talents (Adrian is the marketing guy and Nazim the process and detail-oriented guy) and expertise they were well equipped for the challenge. “To succeed as business partners,” according to Nazim, “you also need to have the same amount of drive to be pushing each other and to have an equal amount of passion to grow whatever you are building.”

Another secret to their success was their desire to go big or go home. “We always had the idea of going big from the start.” Avid world travelers, the pair speak seven languages between them, including Spanish, French, English and Italian. Their web site is available in four languages – German, Spanish, French and English. (Staff at the DNA 11 call centre can also provide customer service in a multitude of languages.) By the end of 2005, just several months after the initial idea for DNA 11 was hatched, Naz and Adrian were receiving a steady stream of customers.

Sample of DNA art.

But what really made DNA 11 take off was coverage in USA Today. The famous daily newspaper with the widest circulation in the U.S. featured an article on DNA 11. Predictably, sales soared. “The article appeared that morning and then sales just poured into our inbox,’’ Naz says. “It’s been nothing but growth ever since.” This initial exposure was followed by other forays into North American media. DNA 11 and CanvasPop were featured in Wired and Playboy. In 2011, DNA 11 Inc artwork appeared on the hit television series CSI: NY (Crime Scene Investigation: New York). The DNA sequence used in the artwork was decoded and used to track down a killer on the loose.

For a homegrown Ottawa business story, the future is looking stellar. But it’s set to be even brighter still. As of March 2012, customers can send their digital images from Instagram and FaceBook directly to CanvasPop and DNA 11. The business potential of this new move is huge. As of February 2012, Facebook had more than 845 million active users. Instagram, a free photo-sharing program launched in October 2010, allows users to take a photo, apply a digital filter to it and share it on social networking services including Facebook. On April 12, 2012, Facebook acquired Instagram and its 13 employees for $1 billion in cash and stock. Instagram’s success story has inspired both Naz and Adrian. “One of the cool aspects of the operation of CanvasPop has been to interface with Instagram,” Adrian sums up.

With its most recent high-technology hook-up with two of the world’s largest high-tech phenomena, CanvasPop’s future is looking limitless.

Health Care Series: Canada’s Prescription Drug Imbroglio – GIVE ME SOME COVERAGE!

May 23, 2012 4:38 pm
Health Care Series: Canada’s Prescription Drug Imbroglio – GIVE ME SOME COVERAGE!

When it comes to buying prescription drugs in Canada, some provinces are more equal than others. Buy prescription drugs in Quebec and you are in luck. The province provides universal coverage to all residents who do not have private health insurance. (In every other province, Canadians pay for their own medication, usually through their private insurer or out of their own pocket.)

In Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island the story changes. Residents in Nova Scotia have only limited coverage for expensive pharmaceuticals used to treat diseases like cancer and diabetes. Residents of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have no coverage at all. This means paying the costs of cancer treatments out of pocket. With around two-thirds of new cancer drugs prescribed for in-home treatment priced at over $20,000 a year, this represents a substantial financial burden to cancer patients in those provinces. Other provinces and territories lie somewhere in the midpoint of these two extremes.

The difference in drug costs may be explained by the Canada Health Act. Although it sets out basic nationwide guidelines, each province sets its own provincial prescription drug benefits plans. The Act sets out nine basic national guidelines for health that includes public administration, comprehensiveness, universality, portability and accessibility. The overarching criterion of the Act is universal coverage for all “medically necessary” hospital and physician services without upfront payment. The guidelines are just that – guidelines. Ignoring them, however, means the provinces may risk losing monies under the Canada Health Transfer from Ottawa to the provinces.

Residents in Nova Scotia have only limited coverage for expensive pharmaceuticals used to treat diseases like cancer and diabetes.

(In 2011, Ottawa provided $25.4 billion in cash and $13.1 billion in tax points to the provinces.) While it may hand over funds, the federal government plays no direct role in health-care delivery.

What is the result of the provinces setting their own prescription drug policies? A 2008 Canadian Medical Association study found “the eligi-bility criteria and cost-sharing details of the publicly-funded prescription drug plans differed markedly across Canada, as did the personal financial burden due to prescription drug costs.” What this means is that a Canadian’s ability to access prescription drugs is largely dependent on where they live. For instance, seniors with income at or above the national average pay 35 per cent or less of their prescription costs in two provinces (New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.) In every other province they pay as much as 100 per cent of their prescription costs. For low-income seniors, the situation is somewhat better. All provinces offer some level of drug reimbursement. (In Alberta and Nova Scotia, however, beneficiaries pay 35 per cent-100 per cent of their prescription costs and professional fees, regardless of their prescription burden.)

Unlike most Organisation for Econo-mic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations, Canada does not have a national catastrophic drug coverage system or a universal prescription drug coverage plan. “Catastrophic prescription drug costs” refers to the provision of a general level of coverage that protects individuals from drug expenses that threaten their financial security or cause “undue financial hardship.”

In its place is a “patchwork” of public and private drug insurance plans. Canada has 19 publicly-funded drug plans which complement the more than 1,000 private drug insurance programs offered by employers, unions and professional associations. These private plans very significantly in terms of eligibility, benefit payment structures and drug formularies.

This patchwork of provincial drug plans is responsible in part for the three million Canadians who are uninsured or under-insured for prescription drugs. The Canadian Health Coalition (comprised of health care workers and anti-poverty groups) says this means access to drugs depends on where you live and if you work. It cites the example of the average couple aged over 65 with an income of $35,000 a year who require $1,000 of drugs a year. The entire cost would be covered in New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, two-thirds of the cost in Quebec and one-third in Ontario and British Columbia – but nothing in the Yukon or Northwest Territories.

Canada does not have a national catastrophic drug coverage system or a universal prescription drug coverage plan.

Access to prescription medication is also dependent on the demographic you fit in or to put it plainly, who you are. Low-income non-seniors are the hardest hit by Canada’s prescription policy. Most people in this category have to pay for the full cost of their medications, unless they or their employer subscribe to a private insurance plan. In the case of low-income non-seniors, this is unlikely. Private insurance plans are often only available to full-time workers. Low-income earners typically work for the minimum wage, are on contract or work part-time. Even for low-income non-seniors, it pays to live in the “right” province. Take for instance a 23-year-old single woman with a child and a household income of $14,000 a year. The average cost of medication to treat hypothyroidism and hyperlipidemia for one year is $807. Due to different subsidization rates, the woman would pay $849 for medication if she lived in Nova Scotia, but only $252 a year if she lived in British Columbia.

So how does Ontario rate when it comes to prescription medications? Canada’s largest have-not province fares well when it comes to equitable access to medication. A study by the Centre for Health Services and Policy Research, University of British Columbia, found that Ontario (along with British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) provided the greatest protection against catastrophic prescription drug costs.

Ontario has six main drug benefit programs. Beneficiaries of the largest one (the Ontario Drugs Benefit Program) include persons who are 65 years of age or older, long-term care home residents, persons enrolled in a home care program and persons on social assistance. Ontarians with high drug costs relative to income registered in the Trillium Drug Program are also eligible.

In 2010, in a bid to curb medication costs, Ontario reduced the price of most generic drugs to 25 per cent of the brand-name products. Prior to the reform, Ontario paid 25 per cent to 75 per cent for generic drugs. According to the Government of Ontario, the change to the generic drug regime saved the province $500 million a year, with an extra $100 million in savings anticipated in 2012.

But it doesn’t stop there. April’s provincial budget means health care in Ontario is set to change. In a bid to eliminate Ontario’s massive $15.2-billion dollar deficit in five years, the province announced it would cap health-care spending increases to 2.1 per cent annually over the next three years. This compares to the past eight years which saw health care spending increase by an average 6.1 per cent each year. This includes freezing base funding to hospitals, which are obliged under the Canada Health Act to provide medication to inpatients without an upfront fee.

Exceptions to this rule include the provision of certain medications to treat costly rare illnesses – otherwise known as delisted medications. It is not known if delisted medications in hospitals will increase under the new budget austerity measures. De-listing refers to the removal of a drug from provincial coverage for reasons of cost and/or safety. Also unknown is whether subsidized prescription coverage provided by the province will be affected.

Ontario (along with British Columbia, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) provided the greatest protection against catastrophic prescription drug costs.

What is known is that Ontario is set to take a unique approach to prescription coverage. In most provinces, every single senior, by virtue of their age, receives some form of prescription subsidization. Ontario, however, plans to change this. Seniors with the highest 5 per cent incomes will now pay more for their prescription drug costs to help subsidize home care and support for all seniors. Some seniors depending on income may foot the entire bill. Changes to the Ontario Drug Benefit (ODB) plan means single seniors with an income of $100,000 or more will pay a deductible of $100 plus 3 per cent of net income over $100,000. Senior couples with a combined income of $160,000 or more will pay a $200 deductible plus 3 per cent of income over $160,000. Combined savings will contribute $30 million in 2014-15 toward the new Ontario’s Seniors’ Strategy.

Adding to the future affordability of prescription drug costs across Canadais an impending national drug short-age. The supply shortfall is due in large part to unexpected production problems at a pharmaceutical faci-lity operated by Sandoz Canada in Quebec. (Canada already has a national shortage of a particular type of injectable painkillers used by cancer patients and arthritis sufferers.) As a result, many Ontario hospitals are sharing drugs. While for now it is mostly hospitals that provide pharmaceuticals pre-paid through taxes to inpatients which are affected, the drug shortage may eventually filter down to corner store pharmacies. In keeping with supply and demand principles, as pharmaceuticals become less available, the price is expected to rise. And while provincial pharmaceutical drug plans may absorb part of the shock, at least some of the increase may end up being passed on to the average Canadian. As for how much exactly Canada’s drug shortage will add to the prescription drug bill in Ontario’s 3,306 pharmacies, only time will tell.

Dalai Lama Visits Ottawa

May 1, 2012 5:34 pm
Dalai Lama Visits Ottawa

The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet may have come with a serious message, but His Holiness started his public address to the City of Ottawa last Saturday with characteristic humor. With a twinkle in his eye and placing a red baseball cap upon his head before an audience of 7,000 people at the Ottawa Civic Centre at Landsdowne Park, the Dalai Lama began his much awaited address.

“I am very happy once more to be here in Canada because I am an honorary citizen of this country.” said the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. “Of course I am not a taxpayer so I come here and enjoy myself so thank you.”

The purpose of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the nation’s capital - to send the message about China’s occupation of Tibet . Photo: Claire Tremblay

The lighthearted quip however, belied the important purpose of the Dalai Lama’s visit to the nation’s capital -to send the message about China’s occupation of Tibet and to attend the 6th World’s Parliamentarian’s Convention on Tibet to decide how to deal with it. Protest over Chinese rule prompted at least 33 Tibetans to self-immolated or set them selves on fire since 2011.  At the convention, the Dalai Lama, in exile since the occupation began in 1951 said Tibet faces tremendous difficulties. “The situation locally is one ancient nation, with very rich ancient cultural heritage, is actually dying.”

Also speaking at the conference, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said Canada encouraged the Chinese authorities to resume talks with the Dalai Lama. The Government had also responded to the Dalai Lama’s request to allow 1,000 Tibetans to immigrate to Canada. The resettlement of the Tibetans to be overseen by the Canada Tibet Committee and the Project Tibet Society will take place over a five year period. While in Ottawa, the Dalai Lama also met with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the nature of which, His Holiness stated was “top secret.”

Dalai Lama. Photo: Claire Tremblay

Despite the dire situation in Tibet, the Dalai Lama urged his supporters not to “feel hopeless or feel discouraged. The more suppression, the stronger the Tibetan spirit.” He also referenced what he called the “private sympathy” many Chinese intellectuals felt toward Tibet and concern for the region by open-minded government leaders. Hard line suppression by the Chinese would not according to the Dalai Lama win the day.

“I think they believe every problem can be solved by force, by guns. That’s old thinking. During civil war, or revolutionary movements, maybe. In peacetime, I think that kind of thinking is out of date.”

Controversial Public Servant Cuts Coming – Canada’s Magic Shrinking Trick

April 27, 2012 4:03 pm
Controversial Public Servant Cuts Coming – Canada’s Magic Shrinking Trick

Public Servants Series

What will Canada look like if tens of thousands of public sector jobs are lost by the end of this year? That is the question plaguing economists, unions and political analysts alike. These potential job losses follow the federal Conservative government’s announcement to freeze wages and deliver $8 billion in cuts over the next five years. The goal? Rid Canada of its $56 billion deficit over the same time period. Last year’s announcement prompted a collective gasp of horror. Not since Paul Martin’s 1995-96 austerity Budget has Canada seen anything close to such numbers. That was the year Ottawa cut program spending by 8.8 per cent and reduced public sector employment by 14 per cent. Cuts of that magnitude loom again. Treasury Board President Tony Clement told the Empire Club of Toronto in January the cuts could be as deep as ten per cent, which equates to spending “of anywhere between $4 billion and $8 billion.” Without question, Canada will feel the reductions. Big time.

And while Martin’s shrinking trick saved Canada from becoming, as the Wall Street Journal put it “an honorary member of the Third World” this time around there are poignant differences.  The Conservative’s $4 billion program spending cuts amounted to less than 2 per cent of total federal spending. (This would the Treasury Board maintains, return the federal government to a balanced budget in 2015/2016.) The Chrétien-Martin cuts amount to spending cuts of more than 2.7 per cent of GDP. What really makes the impact different this time around is the nature of the cuts. Martin’s 1995-1996 Budget spread the pain – payments to individuals, transfers to other levels of government and direct program spending. The current Conservative government’s focus is on direct program spending which means highly concentrated layoffs of the public-sector employees that deliver them. And it is this aspect that has the public sector unions worried – very worried.

Without question, Canada will feel the reductions. Big time.

The Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada (PIPSC) that represents 57,000 government scientists and professionals maintains Canadians will lose all round. The cuts will imperil the economy and leave Canadians bereft of crucial public services. (An economic analysis by the Canadian Association of Professional Employees (CAPE) released in February projects the loss of up to 116,000 jobs in Canada’s public and private sectors. CAPE argues this will topple Canada into recession.) How can a country with a gutted public sector provide sufficient public services? Gary Corbett, PIPSC President remains dedicated to doing just that. “We are committed to defending the public good due to the erosion of public services and the related economic and social impact of job losses on communities across the country.”

The type of public services slated for cuts also concerns Corbett. “Our members are professionals whose jobs can be summed up as protecting Canadians. Any time thousands of their positions are on the line, public safety demands a full and transparent accounting of the impact,” says Corbett. Earlier this year, the government announced the layoffs of food and safety inspectors and scientists that monitor water quality and pollution levels – that is, public servants crucial to the functioning of a first-world country. Read more about PIPSC on page 54 of Ottawa Life Magazine March/April Edition.

An analysis by economic think tank the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), “The Cuts Behind the Curtain: How federal cutbacks will slash services and increase unemployment,” validates Corbett’s concerns. The CCPA estimates federal government employee job losses of between 60,100 and 68,300. The City of Ottawa would be especially hard hit. Our city’s unemployment rate would soar from 6.2 per cent to 9.2 per cent.

The CCPA also looked at programs that would be cut.  Some of the most vulnerable are hit hard. Support for low-income families, seniors, the unemployed, environmental programs, programs for Aboriginal on-reserve housing, training and primary health care and workplace and food safety inspectors would all be cut. Canada, the CCPA report maintains could lose up to 1,500 food and safety inspectors in the Canadian Inspection System – all within 12 months. “This” the report added, “despite Canada’s still-vivid memory of the 2008 listeriosis outbreak.” (This refers to the Maple Leaf Foods tainted cold cuts incident that killed 23 Canadians.) And if that wasn’t enough, Canada’s international profile would be hurt. Cuts to Canada’s international development program would also be affected.

Proposed by the Tories is $1 billion in cuts over the next fiscal year, $2 billion for 2013-14 and $4 billion (which could go as high as $8 billion) by 2014-15. Under the microscope are 70 government departments and agencies which are required to submit scenarios for a five and ten per cent cut to their budgets. This, the Tories say, will help eliminate a $31 billion deficit by 2015-16.

Proposed by the Tories is $1 billion in cuts over the next fiscal year.

A way of assessing the potential impact of the cuts is to compare and contrast the Tory slash plan with the size and shape of the 1995-96 budget cuts.  At the time of the 1995-1996 cuts, the world had written off Canada as an economic basket case.  Ottawa cut deep and Canada rebounded. The GDP grew an average of 3.3 per cent a year. Canada then proceeded to outpace other G-7 economies, investment grew 5.4 per cent a year and employment expanded by 2.1 per cent. The number of welfare recipients halved and the national debt fell to 29 per cent in 2008-2009 from 68 per cent in 1995-96. The federal Conservatives believe the 2012 cuts might set Canada on track again. But the tone, the vein and intent feel different this time around.  Many argue the Tories are targeting many of the programs and public services that are defining features of the Canadian fabric, what makes our country unique.

Might there be another solution to Canada’s deficit conundrum than across-the-board cuts to government departments?

Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, who commanded the Canadian army during the Afghanistan mission thinks so. So do economists and social think tanks like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the C.D. Howe Institute and even the Conservative Fraser Institute.

Leslie proposes a nuanced approach. Instead of axing across the board, cuts should be targeted. Ironically, he says the Department of National Defence should be cut. In Report on Transformation 2011, Leslie proposes a wholesale deflation of the national headquarters of Department of Defence. Among the 43 recommen-dations is the redeployment and elimination of 3,500 regular forces personnel and 3,500 civil servants in the department, cutting 30 per cent from the $2.7 billion spent each year on private contractors, consultants and services and the consolidation of departments that overlap and dupli-cate each other.

Niels Veldhuis, Vice-President of Canadian Policy Research at the Fraser Institute.

Niels Veldhuis, Vice-President of Canadian Policy Research at the Fraser Institute, advocates a Martin-era redux. “What they did was to put every single government department under a series of six tests. This is something the current government should do today.” The final results might, Veldhuis suggests, result in some departments being unaffected by cuts, some being disbanded altogether with others falling mid-way. The Martin tests included assessing departments on affordability, ability to serve the public interest, scope for private/public sector partnerships and the necessity of government involvement. Reductions at the spending level are another solution to Canada’s deficit woes. Veldhuis suggests the removal of the 100-odd “special treatments” such as credits and allowances offered by the government to the ordinary taxpayer through to corporations.

David Macdonald, Senior Economist at the CCPA, the Fraser Institute’s ideological counterpoint, offers  another solution Canada’s deficit woes – eat the rich. Solutions include a new tax income bracket for Canadians who earn $250,000 a year or more, closing high end tax loopholes for Canada’s ultra wealthy, getting rid of the capital gains tax and capping Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP) contributions to $15,000 instead of the current $22,000. Only wealthy Canadians can contribute $22,000 a year, turning RRSPs into a tax shelter for the rich.

Alexandre Laurin from the C.D Howe Institute offers other revenue raising solutions – user fees for services offered by Crown Corporations, the full or partial privatization of government services and switching the tax mix from corporate taxed to consumption taxes. Easing the corporate tax burden would Laurin says “create more economic growth.”

But no matter the solution to Canada’s deficit woes, the effects of the government’s plans on the country remain a dark horse.  As the government unveils its budget, things will likely become a bit clearer.  But it has been a situation that, Corbett, as the head of Canada’s largest professional public sector employee union, finds unacceptable. “For us it is about working smarter, not cutting the public sector wholesale, it’s about better planning and identifying where you want to take the public service.” Time will tell where Canada’s public service will end up and where Canadians are going to feel the pinch.

SIDEBAR: Finance Minister Jim Flaherty disagrees with conclusions in report by CAPE

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty

While public sector service unions are heeding CAPE’s findings, Canada’s Finance Minister Jim Flaherty dismisses them.  In February, Flaherty told CBC’s Evan Solomon that CAPE’s projected $8 billion cuts are “way outside the realm of possibility.” As for the prospect of 116,000 job losses, Flaherty stated the government has “a very complicated process for work adjustment in the federal government. Nothing happens quickly in terms of work adjustment changes: it takes a year or two, even perhaps three in some cases, so moderation in all things, and we have a fair amount of attrition.” However, when Solomon probed Flaherty on the scope of the estimated between 5-10 per cent  cuts Flaherty remained tight-lipped. “We’re working on it, reviewing all the work of the Deficit Reduction Committee and we’re not at final figures and I’m not being coy about that,” Flaherty said. With the 2012 Budget being tabled in the House of Commons on March 29, only time will tell.

The Baltic-Nordic Film Festival: The Tree Lover

April 20, 2012 11:34 am
The Baltic-Nordic Film Festival: The Tree Lover

Strange things occur in the woods of northern Sweden. That’s the media teaser for Swedish movie The Tree Lover set to feature at the Bright Nights: The Baltic-Nordic Film Festival tonight at Library and Archives Canada. The movie, well received by Sweden’s critics looks set to live up to its mysterious promise. In a sort of reality television show turned into high-art film, the movie consists of a film crew – consisting of three urbanized northerners – seeking to get back to their rural roots. They go back to a much loved tree house they frequented and children and so the story begins. There the tree house becomes not just any old play structure but a symbolic lost Eden – a missing connection between people and the natural world. In a movie serious and touching in the way only the Swedes seem to have managed to master, The Tree House is set to touch a universal sentiment – that there truly is  is no place like home. The Tree House along with short film Instead of Abracadabra will be screened at the Auditorium of the Library and Archives Canada tonight, Friday April 20 at 9:00pm.

More information on the film and Bright Nights: The Baltic-Nordic Film Festival is available at the Swedish Embassy website at www.swedenabroad.com. The Festival runs from April 19 to April 28, 2012.

 

Greenstream Series: Polar Expert – Dr. Peter Harrison

April 13, 2012 9:02 am
Greenstream Series: Polar Expert –  Dr. Peter Harrison

Dr. Peter Harrison has devoted his career to understanding Canada’s northern and Arctic oceans. As global warming threatens the planet, his knowledge on the subject is needed now more than ever.

Harrison, a professor at Queen’s University who specializes in ocean and coastal management, has run the gamut of his career learning all there is to know about Canada’s Arctic. As a senior member of the public service of Canada for 30 years, Harrison has held a number of key posts associated with ocean management. As Deputy Minister of Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) and, later, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), Dr. Harrison was responsible for a significant amount of the northern and polar research and policy development for the Government of Canada. As a Senior Associate Deputy Minister of (then) Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC), Dr. Harrison played a key role in directing current northern and Arctic policy. And, as an aside, Dr. Harrison is a Fellow, Governor and Vice-President of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

The International Polar Year 2012 (IPY 2012)

Harrison’s importance to the preservation of Canada’s Arctic environment is hard to overestimate. For instance, one of Harrison’s shining moments was his instrumental role in signing Canada on to the United Nation’s Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS III) in 2003. Ratification of the treaty ties Canada to United Nation’s rules on the world’s oceans on everything from pollution to mining. Given the Arctic ice melt, UNCLOS III limits on claims to the ocean floor are of crucial importance. Canada shares the central Arctic Ocean with four other states – Denmark (Greenland), Norway, Russia and the United States. As a result of this and other efforts, Dr. Harrison was awarded the Gold Medal celebrating the Golden Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for his contributions. He is also the recipient of the J.B Nicholls award for a lifetime of contributions to ocean and coastal management in Canada and around the world.

But it is Dr. Harrison’s role as chair of the world’s largest gathering of polar scientists in Montreal this April which may make the biggest impact. The International Polar Year 2012 (IPY 2012) will examine scientific research to tackle issues crucial to polar environments and the planet at large. More than 2,500 delegates including scientists, policy makers, representatives of business and industry and residents of the circumpolar north from more than 40 countries will attend the conference. They will translate the world’s most significant scientific findings into concrete action on climate change.

Harrison, who holds a PhD in Geography, says he hopes a key outcome of IPY 2012 is “a greater distribution of knowledge about the polar regions.” This is especially important in the context of Inuit and other circumpolar peoples who stand to be most directly affected by climate change.

IPY 2012 will examine scientific research to tackle issues crucial to polar environments and the planet at large.

“Understanding the rapid pace of polar change will help those who are affected to develop strategies to cope with or benefit from the change,” Dr. Harrison says. Of pressing concern, according to Harrison, are shorter sea-ice seasons, melting permafrost and the changing migration patterns of different species.

“Canada has played a lead role in the International Polar Year by providing significant funding for research in all disciplines,” says Harrison. “More importantly, Canada has been at the forefront in ensuring the focus on the human dimension and on traditional knowledge developed by Arctic indigenous people over millennia.” Dr. Harrison, along with his Canadian peers in the Arctic, are set to ensure Canada remains a world leader on Arctic issues for decades to come.

Maple Magic

April 12, 2012 8:38 am
Maple Magic

April means maple syrup and according to National Geographic, the best sticky stuff in Ontario is in Lanark County just outside Ottawa, in Ontario’s Highlands. Known as the Maple Syrup Capital of Ontario, Lanark’s maple syrup was ranked first in a list of top ten foods to eat in Ontario.

That’s great news for Ottawa foodies seeking to make the most of the final weeks of the maple syrup season that runs from late February to April. Located between Ottawa and Kingston, Lanark County offers up a treasure trove of choices for even the most discerning maple syrup connoisseurs. And for those simply seeking to enjoy a great Canadian tradition, the area has a wide selection of sugar bushes ideal for individuals, couples and families alike. Guests can enjoy maple syrup treats from maple taffy, watching maple syrup production and indulging in maple syrup-soaked breakfasts.

Maple Magic – Ontarioshighlands

Wheeler’s Pancake House and Sugar Camp and Fulton’s Pancake House and Sugar Bush provide but a sample of the County’s maple syrup delights. Wheeler’s, located on Highland Line near McDonald’s Corners, offers the complete maple syrup and family fun experience including pancake meals, trails, barn and playground, a blacksmith shop, a Maple Heritage Museum, and of course, maple syrup production. Fulton’s is located on #291 6th Concession Road and is another great option. Fulton’s has a modern sugar shack, a gift shop and a restaurant capable of seating 120 people that serves up pancakes, sausages, baked goods and yummy combination plates. Also not to be missed are sumptuous male syrup treats from The Maple Shoppe that include maple syrup, butter, maple candy and granulated maple sugar. For some sweet pampering, Fulton’s offers a fragrant line of Maple Luscious Bath and Body Products containing maple sap, maple syrup or maple sugar sand.

But it’s not just Lanark County that excels in maple syrup production. Other locations in Ontario’s Highlands, from Madoc to Haliburton and the Ottawa Valley, also have their own fair share of star maple syrup producers. In the Ottawa Valley, Mapleside Sugar Bush and Mapleton House are great options. Mapleside Sugar Bush is located near Pembroke and offers maple syrup at its finest along with a gourmet range of maple syrup products including candy, maple mint vinegar, mustard, male BBQ sauce and maple meat rubs. Mapleton House, a licensed restaurant and gift shop near Hardwood Lake, provides maple-inspired catering for weddings, anniversaries, retirement parties and family reunions. In Madoc, O’Hara Sugar Maples offers tours of their sugar bush, though hours vary throughout the season.

Fortune Maple Syrup

In nearby Haliburton, maple fans can enjoy the maple sensations at the Wintergreen Maple Syrup and Pancake Barn and Camp Can-Aqua. Wintergreen offers a full line of maple products and gifts, sugar bush tours, fruit pies, a full maple menu and group BBQ events and corporate gifts. Nearby Camp Can-Aqua doubles as a summer camp and it produces some of the top quality maple syrup available at food retail outlets in Bancroft, Algonquin Park, and the Muskokas. Maple syrup bottle sizes range from 40ml right up to a hefty four litres. Tours of the Sugarhouse are available upon request. Then there is Ontario’s First Maple Winery. Check out Moon Shadows Estate Winery on Highway 118 in Haliburton. It offers its famous chilled maple wine, as well as a quality selection of other gourmet wines from fruity autumn pear to blackcurrant and fuzzy peach.

And if all that isn’t enough to satisfy your maple mania, Lanark County has one more option. The Perth Festival of the Maples celebrates everything maple for one day only on April 28 – to mark the official end of the maple syrup season. Festival highlights include fantastic shops, vendors offer-ing award-winning maple products, displays, stage entertainment and children’s activities concentrated on scenic downtown Gore Street.

For the ultimate maple experience, visit YoursOutdoors.ca

For the ultimate maple experience, visit YoursOutdoors.ca to learn about a variety of maple experiences, including a three-day special package, The Art and Syrup of maple. During this maple extravaganza, guests can learn about maple syrup production, explore a sugar bush on snowshoes, dine on maple cuisine, enjoy maple wine at the neighbouring Moon Shadows Estate Winery, indulge in a Maple Sugar spa foot treatment, and even make a maple syrup pitcher and glass at a glassblowing workshop. Guests stay at the cozy Inukshuk Manor B&B. To top it all off the package features a house concert by local musicians Bethany Houghton playing the cello, violin and fiddle and Ernie Demuth on guitar.

No matter what your maple craving, Ontario’s Highlands is truly the best place to find it. To find out more visit the Ontario’s Highlands website at www.ontarioshighlands.ca.

GreenStream Series: The Human Face of Climate Change

April 11, 2012 10:16 am
GreenStream Series: The Human Face of Climate Change

In April, the world’s top polar scientists will descend on Montreal to answer the world’s most pressing question – how is climate change affecting our planet and what should we do about it? The International Polar Year 2012 (IPY) conference will examine all aspects of the changing polar environment – from biodiversity through to polar shipping. But perhaps the most important IPY event will centre on those immediately affected by climate change – circumpolar indigenous people.

The Indigenous Knowledge Exchange – to be held in conjunction with 156 parallel sessions on polar science – will examine major issues affecting the people of the North. Arctic indigenous leaders, policymakers and decision-takers and researchers will attempt to come up with solutions to crucial issues including food security and health, wildlife and management, and youth and capacity-building.

Dr. Peter Harrison, Chair of IPY 2012

Dr. Peter Harrison, Chair of IPY 2012, says the rapid environmental change experienced in Canada’s Arctic is having a strong impact on the health and sustainability of Northern communities. Shorter sea-ice seasons, melting permafrost, changing migration patterns of different species – all impact the daily lives of Canada’s indigenous peoples. “Understanding the rapid pace of polar change will help those who are affected to develop strategies to cope with or benefit from the change,” Dr. Harrison says.

The outcomes of the Indigenous Knowledge Exchange will combine with other action forums on polar themes including Sustainable Polar Fisheries and Marine Areas, Access to Quality and Sustainable Health Care in Arctic Communities, and Earth Observation. The challenges facing resource deve-lopment with a concentration on oil, gas and mineral extraction in polar regions will also be explored.

Dr. Harrison says climate change eases the way for mining companies to access natural resources such as oil, gas and minerals in traditional Northern communities. “The sustainable development of natural resources will need to be based on better knowledge of environmental and social impacts, particularly within the land claims context,” Dr. Harrison says. “It is my hope that a key conference outcome includes a greater distribution of knowledge of all kinds about the polar regions to those who can use it, the creation of an ongoing dialogue, and continued momentum in polar knowledge generation.”

Dr. Harrison added that Canada is a world leader in ensuring the human dimension of circumpolar change – particularly if the Arctic is included in climate change discussions. Although Canada is hosting this year’s IPY event, it is only one of several countries funding and participating in the international conference. Canada contributed $156 million over six years in the lead-up to IPY 2012.

Indigenous knowledge on changing ecosystems can inform and direct science on climate change, particularly in Canada’s North. Photo: Charlie Riedel

The observations of Canada’s Inuit and other Northern Aboriginal people are gaining increasing traction with the world’s climate change scientists. Indigenous knowledge on changing ecosystems can inform and direct science on climate change, particularly in Canada’s North. An example of the chain effect of climate change on the North would include the impact of a lake drying up, which then reduces the habitat for muskrat. A reduction in the muskrat population then leads to less food for caribou and a decline in the caribou population.

Nancy Karetak-Lindell, who will chair the Indigenous Knowledge Exchange, says the participation of indigenous people at IPY 2012 is crucial to understanding the human aspect of climate change. Karetak-Lindell – the former MP for Nunavut, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Natural Resources and chair of the Standing Committee on Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development – has spent her career working to improve the socio-economic conditions for the Inuit. In 2009, she was appointed director of the Jane Glassco Arctic Fellowship Program, created to increase the participation of northerners in shaping policies governing the Canadian Arctic.

Shorter sea-ice seasons, melting permafrost, changing migration patterns of different species all impact the daily lives of Canada’s indigenous peoples. Photo: The Canadian Press, Jonathan Hayward

“There are so many ways our traditional knowledge from the circumpolar world can complement science and put a human face to the challenges confronting us in our Arctic world,” Karetak-Lindell said.

The International Polar Year 2012 ConferenceFrom Knowledge to Action will be held in Montreal April 22-27 at the Palais des congrès. More than 25 world experts will attend IPY 2012, including Dr. Louis Fortier, Scientific Director of ArcticNet; Dr. Sheila Jasanoff, Director of the Program on Science, Technology and Society at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; Dr. Jose Xavier, a marine biologist with the Institute of Marine Research, University of Coimbra, Portugal; and, Aqqaluk Lynge, President of the Inuit Circumpolar Council.

Opening the conference is Dr. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Special Envoy on Climate Change for the United Nations, best known for championing sustainable development as the chair of the World Commission on the Environment. Recommendations in the 1987 Report of the Brundtland Commission led to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.

For more information visit, www.ipy2012montreal.ca

No Silver Lining to Golden Years

April 4, 2012 2:45 pm
No Silver Lining  to Golden Years

Pensions & peace of mind series

Retirement issues are hot these days. The Tories’ muse about increasing the retirement age and the words ‘pension reform’ are loaded ones. There is no question Canada is facing a pension crunch. In the coming years, the number of Canadian retirees will dramatically increase as Boomers age and there will be fewer working age taxpayers to support them.

Adding to the strain on the public purse will be rising costs in health care. As the population ages, so too do the demands. Extra health-care expenses will cut into Canada’s ability to provide adequate pensions. So what are the options? Cut public sector pensions, cut guaranteed pension income available to all from the Old Age Security (OAS), Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) and the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) or reform all pensions to create a more uniform retirement income level for all Canadians? Opinions are divided on how to ensure every Canadian senior retires in dignity and with only one out of three Canadians stating they will be able to retire comfortably, pension reform is needed – and fast. The political sensitivity of the issue was illustrated when the Prime Minister mused in Davos, Switzerland this January about reforms to Old Age Security, with the government then moving quickly to soften its stand in the face of a public backlash. While reforms may be needed, there are no easy options available able to maintain its regime of pensions at its current rate.

Frank Swedlove, President of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association

It is helpful to put the current system in context. It was created a generation ago when poverty rates were highest among old people. CPP, OAS and other elements largely succeeded in fixing this problem and ensuring that most retirees could avoid poverty in old age. However, as the population ages and life expectancies grow, funding comfortable retirements for all is a growing challenge. Here are some other facts. As it stands, two-thirds of elderly Canadians receive a total annual income of $25,000 or less and three quarters of their total income is from public pensions – Old Age Security and the Canada Pension Plan. While to some, this may seem bleak, internationally, Canada fares well. Elder poverty is defined as individuals over 65 years of age with a disposable income less than 50 per cent of the median income. According to the Conference Board of Canada, Canada has a 5.9 per cent overall elderly poverty rate (a poverty rate lower than that of working age Canadians), coming second place only to the Netherlands (which has an overall elderly poverty rate of 2.0 per cent) among OECD countries. Pensions play a key role in ensuring our seniors don’t fall into the poverty trap. Despite this, many Canadians within this select group live in poverty. Up to 43 per cent of unattached elderly women and 31 per cent of unattached elderly men lived in poverty in 2001.

Alarm bells are going off everywhere. In a report to the Ontario government in mid-February, economist Don Drummond stated pension expenses are spiraling out of control. Drummond arrived at his conclusions after a year long examination of Ontario’s economy that resulted in 362 recommendations. The federal government estimates Canada’s liability in public-service pension plans is $147 billion a year. William Robson, chief executive of the C.D. Howe Institute, a Toronto-based think tank puts it even higher. In a study released December 2011, Robson concluded the federal government’s pension liability was $80 billion higher at $227 billion. Either way, trouble lies ahead.

The nature of pensions with different categories doesn’t help the situation. There are “defined benefit” DB pension plans and “defined contribution” (DC) pension plans. Nearly all public-service plans in Canada are DB plans, meaning future benefits are guaranteed regardless of how the fund does financially. Those benefits are based on a formula that might include the employee’s earning history, age and length of service. By contrast, DC plans – in which the employer’s annual contributions are specified but the ultimate pension provided will depend on investment returns – are increasingly common in the private sector. Over two-thirds of pension plans are DC, and they tend to be for small and medium-sized businesses, since large private sector employers have traditionally offered DB plans. But this is changing as many large private sector employers shift to DC plans in order to better manage costs for the employer.

Returns on defined contribution plans depend on the vagaries of the market.

What this means is the defined benefit plans for public sector employees have guaranteed payouts – regardless of the government’s or the taxpayer’s ability to pay. Returns on defined contribution plans however, depend on the vagaries of the market. Furthermore, a key variable in the calculations actuaries make to determine if a DB pension fund is properly funded or not are interest rates- the lower rates, the more likely a fund is to be in deficit. In today’s low interest rate environment, many DB pension funds face staggering deficits straining the finances of employers.

There is no question that guaranteed pension returns strain the public purse. As an example, the City of Montreal saw its annual pension contributions increase to $609 million in 2011, up $132 million from a year earlier. Other municipalities are experiencing the same situation. Saint John has a $163 million shortfall in its civic pension plan. In both cities, city officials are reducing municipal services or increasing the tax burden on municipal taxpayers to cope. In Ontario, select public sector employees are experiencing reductions in benefits. The Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan shortfall was $17.2 billion as of 2011. Then there is the disparity in the ratio between the number of senior Canadians and working age Canadians. Recent Statistics Canada findings indicate there were just over five people aged 15 to 64 for each person aged 65 years and older. (This compares to 1956 when there were eight working age adults to every person aged 65 years and older.) If Canada continues at its current rate, there will be a further decline to 2.2 working-age persons for each elderly person. Associated with the increased ratio of seniors are health care costs. With age comes disability. Seniors have the highest disability rate of any group. While 11.5 per cent of working aged Canadians (those aged 15 to 64) has a disability, 43.4 per cent of seniors do. A third of recently retired seniors defined as aged 65 to 74 have even higher rates of disability. More than half or 56.3 per cent of seniors aged 75 and above have a disability. – While not directly related to pensions, the combination of rising health care and pension costs with an aging population will simultaneously strain public finances.

Frank Swedlove, President of the Canadian Life and Health Insurance Association which represents the vast majority of Canada’s life and health insurance industry and whose members manage more than two–thirds of Canada’s private sector pension plans, has a few ideas on solutions to the crunch.

There is no question that guaranteed pension returns strain the public purse.

Front and centre is the concept of Pooled Registered Pension Plans (PRPPs.) PRPPs are government regulated, private sector fund workplace pensions aimed at the more than 50 per cent of Canadians working in the private sector who do not have access to a retirement plan at their workplace.

PRPPs would play a role in supplementing or replacing Register-ed Retirement Savings Plans and other retirement savings vehicles. A major advantage of PRPPs would be their easy accessibility in the workplace and their affordability. The federal government tabled legislation in November 2011 to introduce PRPPs. Stipulated in the legislation is a legal requirement that financial institutions provide the funds at “low cost.” (One of the problems with mutual fund RRSPs is that they usually have very high management expenses, lowering returns and making it harder to earn a good rate of return on investments over time.) Ted Menzies, Minister of State of Finance, stated the PRPPs would be aimed primarily at the self employed and workers at small and mid-sized firms, which lack the resources to administer a private sector plan.

Swedlove views Canada’s pension challenge as an unprecedented opportunity for Canada to get it right on pensions. “We are at a moment of opportunity to build on existing strengths and to create a better retirement savings system for future generations. We need to expand and promote more use of workplace-based programs.”

But DB and DC pensions and PRPPs are not the only options. In addition to the government-run OAS, GIS and CPP/QP, there is a veritable alphabet soup of pension and retirement plans, including DPSP’s, EPSPs, group and individual RRSPs, LIRAs, LIFs and TFSAs to name a few.

At the heart of the debate over these options is whether DC plans or DB plans are the most effective and affordable solution for Canadians. While many argue that Canada cannot afford to keep up its defined benefit plans provided to the public service, there is also evidence that they are a better option long term. A 2008 study by the U.S.-based National Institute on Retirement Security found that DB plans trump DC plans as being more affordable and that DB plans yield pension results that are three times those of a typical DC plan. Can the public sector continue to have a DB system while the private sector moves increasingly to DC? Can this disparity be resolved by raising benefits for those lacking them or does affordability dictate that the only affordable way to bring about equity is to lower retirement security for those enjoying the most generous plans?

Canada needs to find its way out of its current pension crisis and ensure every Canadian’s later years truly are golden.

No matter what solutions are selected in the end, ensuring all Canadians have an adequate or better still a comfortable retirement won’t be easy. According to the experts, $20 of savings is required for every dollar of retirement income you wish to receive. For instance if you would like to retire on $50, 000 a year, you would need to save $1 million by retirement age. For $25,000 a year, you would require half this amount. Problem is the average Canadian has only around $60,000 in his or her RRSP at the time of retirement.

Either way, Canada’s pension crunch makes for interesting times. But less interesting perhaps, than that of the Greeks where a blowout in public sector wages including pensions has resulted in a financial crisis. Austerity measures agreed to by the government to stem the financial bleeding of the state include reductions in the minimum wage and annual salaries of government employees as well as substantial reductions in pension benefits for retirees.

Though it is highly doubtful that Canada will ever reach this point, it is clear that action needs to be taken, so Canada can find its way out of its current pension crisis and ensure every Canadian’s later years truly are golden.

***Pension Facts***

ALL FIGURES FROM STATISTICS CANADA, 2009.

• Canada’s population aged 65 and older has more than doubled in the past 35 years to 4.3 million, or 13 per cent of the population, in 2006. Medium-growth scenarios suggest the senior population will grow to 23 per cent in 2031.

• Most Canadians (65 per cent) approaching retirement anticipate that their retirement income will be adequate or more than adequate to maintain their standard of living. However, 19 per cent of Canadians expect it to be barely adequate and 9 per cent less than adequate.

• Canada Pension Plan (CPP), Old Age Security (OAS) and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) benefits are key components of Canada’s public pension program.

• As of January 1, 2012, the maximum basic OAS pension, paid to people 65 years of age and over, will be $540.12 per month. GIS and Allowances payments will also increase by 0.4 percent.

• Since July 1, 2011, seniors with little or no income also receive a GIS and Allowances top-up benefit of up to $600 for single seniors and $840 for couples.

• The number of registered pension plans (RPPs) in the country, as of January 1, 2009, was 19,200.

• Only 38 per cent of all employees had an RPP in 2008. The coverage rate in the public sector was 84 per cent. In the private sector, it was only 25 per cent. It is not known how these uncovered individuals will sustain themselves in their retirements.

• Membership in registered pension plans increased 1.7 per cent during 2008 to stand at 6 million.  All of the growth in pension membership in 2008 came from the public sector. Overall, membership in pension plans in Canada is about half men and half women.

• Due to the economic downturn, 75 per cent of RPPs had a funding deficiency at the end of 2008. In other words, their liabilities were greater than their assets.

• On average, Canadian workers had family disposable incomes at age 75 (when most are retired) that were 80 per cent of their incomes at age 55 (when they were working).

Healthcare Series: Medication Costs – A Barrier to Health

March 26, 2012 8:34 am
Healthcare Series: Medication Costs – A Barrier to Health

If you get sick in Canada, for the most part, you’re in luck. Canadians enjoy universal health care which means pre-paid access to a doctor or specialist in a taxpayer-funded health care system. However, receiving a diagnosis is only half of the equation. The other half is access to medication. That is where, unfortunately, equal access to health care in Canada becomes more of a game of chance than a universal guarantee. The reason? Despite spending $192 billion a year on health, Canada remains one of the few industrialized countries in the world without a national drug plan, also known as pharmacare. Put another way, Canada has the second most expensive health system in the world in terms of gross domestic product (GDP) but doesn’t have the second-best health outcomes in the world. The World Health Organization ranks Canada’s health care system at 30th in the world.

The majority of medications administered in hospitals are provided without an upfront cost to the patient.

The good news, however, is that although Canada is a laggard in its provision of comprehensive pharmacare, the majority of medications administered in hospitals are provided without an upfront cost to the patient. (An exception applies to those Canadians unfortunate enough to be saddled with a disease that is expensive to treat and often rare such as osteogenesis imperfecta – in this case, medication costs are usually covered by the patient.) The other not-so-good news is that medications prescribed outside of a hospital setting have to be paid for out of pocket. For Canadians who work full-time and enjoy a comprehensive health insurance plan, this is usually no problem. Medications are covered either partially or in full. In other words, if you are a Canadian who is healthy and fortunate enough to work full-time (and likely to be less in need of prescription medications), you enjoy full health-care coverage. (Even if you do work, there is no guarantee of health insurance coverage. Almost 42 per cent of Canadian workers do not receive drug coverage through their jobs.) If for some reason you are a Canadian who is not healthy or fortunate enough to have secure full-time employment – then you don’t. And at least one in four Canadians fits into this latter category. This segment of the Canadian population is, with some exceptions, required to pay for their prescription medications in full. Special health care coverage which may include access to prescription medications applies to certain groups of Canadians. These include veterans, First Nations on reservations, Inuit, military personnel, some recent immigrants to Canada, inmates of federal penitentiaries and members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

Accessibility to prescription medication also depends on which province you live in. The provinces are responsible for the provision of health-care services to Canadians as established under the Canada Health Act. This means the provinces decide which drugs are covered under provincial health care plans and which ones are not. All provinces provide drug coverage for low-income seniors and recipients of social assistance, including welfare and disability. Other than this, the guarantees of access to medications are limited. Quebec, for instance, provides universal coverage to all residents who do not have any form of private insurance to cover prescription drug costs. Access to prescription drugs in Canada also depends not only on the province you live in but on the type of disease you have. Residents in Nova Scotia have only limited coverage for expensive pharmaceuticals used to treat diseases like cancer and diabetes. Residents of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island have no coverage at all. This means paying for the costs of cancer treatment out of pocket. With around two-thirds of new cancer drugs prescribed for in-home treatment costing over $20,000 a year, this represents a substantial financial burden to cancer patients in those provinces.

Accessibility to prescription medication also depends on which province you live in.

What is the result of this discrepancy in access to prescription drugs? Up to 3.5 million Canadians have inadequate drug coverage or no coverage at all. And it is sicker Canadians who have the most difficulty accessing the care they need. A survey by the Health Council of Canada released in December 2011 showed that almost a quarter of Canadians (23 per cent) with chronic illness skipped a dose of medication or did not fill a prescription due to cost. This compares to 10 per cent of the population. Worse, one in eight survey respondents with a chronic illness skipped a test or follow-up treatment due to cost concerns.

How to solve unequal access to prescription drugs is an ongoing issue in Canada. At the heart of the problem, is the rising cost of prescription drugs. As the cost of prescription drugs rises, so does the “de-listing” of certain prescription drugs by the provinces. De-listing refers to the removal of a drug from provincial drug coverage for reasons of cost and/or safety.

The solution to ensuring all Canadians have access to the prescription drugs they need is an ongoing question.

Increased access to generic drugs is seen as one solution to the prescription drug money crunch. Generic drugs or drugs that are copies of brand-name drugs after their patent protection has expired cost substantially less than their brand-name counterparts – resulting in considerable savings to provincial governments and consumers. A 2008 report by the Canadian Competition Bureau called Benefitting from Generic Drug Competition in Canada: The Way Forward suggested changes to the way governments and private insurance plans pay for generic drugs that could save Canadian taxpayers up to $800 million a year. Better still, according the Canadian Generic Pharmaceutical Association (CGPA), which represents Canada’s generic pharmaceutical industry, Canada has already realized significant savings. An analysis by the CGPA release in January 2012 showed the use of generic prescription medicines has saved Canada nearly $26 billion since 2007. More than half of the prescriptions written in Canada are for generic drugs and the CGPA would like to see this increase. As a number of brand-name drug patents are set to expire in the near future, there is room in the market for generic pharmaceuticals to grow. At present, domestic generic prescription pharmaceutical sales reached $5.7 billion in 2010, representing 26 per cent of the total domestic expenditure on prescription pharmaceuticals and 57 per cent of prescriptions filled.

The solution to ensuring all Canadians have access to the prescription drugs they need is an ongoing question. With a new health care accord which will set the direction for health in Canada until 2024 in the works, only time will tell how the prescription drugs conundrum will pan out.

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