Afghanistan Addition

In writing a tribute seven days ago to those who have fought for this country and were honoured on Remembrance Day earlier this week, I referred only in passing to the forces who have served in conflicts and peacekeeping missions following the Korean War. In fact, I think most Canadians often consider only the two World Wars and the Korean conflict in their remembrances. But, the truth is, tens of thousands of troops have been involved in skirmishes around the globe during the past half-century and often go unrecognized.

One of the most notable instances has been in Afghanistan, where nearly 40,000 Canadian Forces personnel have served since first arriving in 2001. This September, withdrawal of the remaining 900 special personnel began and, by March of next year, only a few will remain. Support for the troops was strong in the middle of last decade, but gradually waned until Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated Canadians had lost their appetite for the war and declared in May 2011, “Afghanistan is no longer a threat to the world.”

Some people beg to differ. Or, at the very least, they would say that Afghanistan is still a definite threat to itself and its people, if not the world. In a fascinating article in the October 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, CBC journalist Mellissa Fung recounts the story of her first return to Afghanistan since she was kidnapped five years ago, held prisoner in a hole for 28 days, and tortured repeatedly.

Fung disputes two popular notions most Canadians hold: that there are few tangible results from our soldiers’ efforts in Afghanistan and that the country is ready to govern itself, hold off the Taliban insurgents and continue the reforms that have begun.

The journalist recounts some truly inspiring statistics in making her case that Canada’s efforts have made a huge difference in the country. One example is in education. “In 2001, 700,000 students were enrolled in school, almost none of them girls. Today more than 10 million children go to school, and 40 percent in the primary grades are girls. Since 2002, more than 4,500 new school buildings have been constructed, and the number of teachers has increased eightfold, to nearly 200,000. In addition, more than a quarter of a million women have attended literacy classes,” writes Fung.

She also has high praise for the Canadian forces who have served in the country – along with deep sadness for the sacrifices they’ve made: “The mission transformed the military into a modern fighting force, but also left us with a long roll call of dead, wounded and battle scarred. One hundred and fifty-eight soldiers were killed, more than 2,000 were injured and another 3,000 are estimated to have developed some form of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

Despite those grim numbers, Fung talks about the positives for the Canadian forces, saying, “The more than decade-long engagement in Afghanistan, the longest in Canada’s history, has given our military a much-needed morale boost, rehabilitating its image after the Somalia scandal in the 1990s. The forces entered Afghanistan with a sense of both purpose and trepidation, a volunteer army from a small country, no longer peacekeepers but warriors, with new equipment, new recruits and a renewed sense of pride.”

But, as far as the job being done, Fung has her doubts. She reports that nearly three million Afghans live as refugees in neighbouring countries with almost half a million displaced internally. Countrymen fear the worst as foreign powers abandon the country. One young mother told Fung, “Leaving a war at this stage means you will give al Qaeda the chance to grow again. When the world talks about humanitarian assistance, or the humanitarian part of the fight, this is not done yet.”

The woman does not believe her government is capable of running the country with its poor record so far of corruption and lack of transparency. She is not alone. Fung feels the current balancing act, which includes a “peace” where upwards of 100 Afghan soldiers are killed every week, is extremely fragile – and she doesn’t believe they can go it alone. “Yes, Afghans must learn to stand on their own, take care of their country, and protect their rights. They understand that, and they want it more than anything; but to protect the gains that have been made, sustained investment from the rest of the world is needed, and will be for a long time. There is fear here, but also optimism,” she says.

As the remaining Canadian Forces personnel prepare to exit the country, some are, undoubtedly, ready to come home, having done their job to the best of their ability. However, for other personnel – along with the many civilians who remain in Afghanistan – there’s a sense the job is incomplete, that the projects and missions they began as far back as 2001 still need to be finished.

In either case, those who served in Afghanistan deserve our deepest respect and gratitude for what they have accomplished in a country nearly 11,000 km away. They have performed bravely and professionally and with distinction. And they deserve our remembrance wholeheartedly.




The Most Boring (And Potentially Important) Story You’ll Read This Year

Pension reform. Have you stopped reading yet? Have your eyes begun glazing over? Have you already gone to the refrigerator to find something to snack on? If so, then, like me, you probably haven’t been paying attention to the issue of pension reform in this country. The fact is, the changing demographic make-up of Canada is about to have a serious impact on the future of all our pension systems. So what? Well, whether you’re about to retire – or have another 40 years left in the workforce – it’s going to affect you in ways you’ve never imagined.

First things first. The Canada Pension Plan is in decent shape, at least for the time being. Far from being the basket case it was in the early 1990’s, the system is in no danger of collapsing – for the moment anyway. The reason is that the Liberal government at the time and, specifically, finance minister Paul Martin, made massive changes to the system, which would have been bankrupt by now if things had stayed on the same course.

Similarly, Stephen Harper’s government has now introduced measures to gradually raise the age when Canadians can begin receiving their Old Age Security (OAS) benefits and Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) to 67 from 65, which helps bolster that part of the retirement pie. The government gave four reasons for the changes.

First, Canada’s population is aging rapidly. Over the next two decades the combination of baby boomers hitting retirement age and longer life expectancy means 25 percent of the country’s population will consist of seniors by 2030, compared with just 14 percent in 2010.

Second, because of the rising number of seniors, OAS payments will increase over the same 20-year time frame to $108 billion from $38 billion, or about 21 cents of every federal tax dollar from the current 13.

Third, with the increased payments required, the burden to fund the system will fall increasingly on younger Canadians. Right now, there are four working-age people for every senior. By 2030, there will be just two working Canadians for every senior. That will not only affect workers’ lifestyles, it will also hamper their ability to save for their own retirements.

Finally, the Canadian labour market is going to have to adapt quickly due to the huge number of retirements. If labour can’t pick up the slack, it will have a huge impact on the country’s economic growth and our ability to fund social programs, especially those for seniors.

With the latest changes, a Band-Aid has been applied to the OAS and GIS, but nothing has been done to fix the most glaring problems, which are the CPP and the decline in private sector pension plans. For the time being, the CPP is adequately funded. The problem is, benefits from that plan max out at only about $12,000 a year. Add in OAS and GIS and it doesn’t equal much of a retirement plan, especially if that’s all you’re counting on in your golden years. What else do you plan to live on?

The bare minimum most retirees can survive on is 60% of their working salaries, while most require much more if they want to live even somewhat comfortably. As reported in the Globe and Mail, a report from CIBC earlier this year says, “5.8 million Canadians face a decline in living standards of more than 20 percent when they retire. Those born in the 1980s can expect a drop of 30 percent.”

In the past, most of the difference between working income and retirement income was made up by pension plans, especially “defined benefit plans” that guarantee retirees a payout equal to a certain percentage of their best earning years. While public sector employees still enjoy those plans, most private companies have opted to switch to “defined contribution plans” where your retirement fund is made up of the contributions you and your employer make plus whatever growth you can accumulate. In other words, there are no guarantees about what you’ll be paid out when you retire and, typically, they’re much less lucrative.

Even worse, many companies have abandoned pension plans altogether – or their existing plans are so underfunded that the benefits people once expected are now gone forever or will likely be cut back severely by the time retirement arrives. Currently, less than a quarter of private sector employees even have a pension, versus 87% of public employees.

To be blunt, if something isn’t done now to address this issue, millions of Canadians will be retiring in the next 20 years with virtually no pensions, no RRSPs and no savings of any kind. As The Walrus magazine stated in an article from its September 2013 issue: “This cohort faces the very real risk of an impoverished old age that will inflict extreme fiscal pressures on social programs and health care while starving other public services. Those without decent pensions will have little choice but to keep working if they want to avoid poverty.”

It’s probably too late for many of the millions of retiring baby boomers to address the problem if they haven’t already planned ahead. However, for anyone in their 50’s or younger, new solutions need to be found – and very quickly. There are plenty of options, some voluntary and some mandatory. One would be an enhanced CPP where individuals can supplement their required contributions. Another is a Pooled Registered Pension Plan, which is similar to the enhanced CPP, except it’s administered by employers, although companies themselves don’t have to contribute. There’s already a federal framework for this and Quebec recently introduced its own version called the Voluntary Retirement Savings Plan.

The problem with voluntary plans is that they’ll likely only be used by people who are already good savers and invest regularly in RRSPs, TFSAs and other similar vehicles. For the millions who don’t have the discipline to do so, mandatory options seem to be a better solution. But, who would administer such a plan – the government, employers, or a totally separate entity?

In the article from The Walrus it talks glowingly about the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan, the world’s best-performing retirement fund and one that currently has assets of $130 billion. Teachers are forced to invest a certain portion of their salaries in the fund and can’t withdraw anything until their normal retirement age, unlike RRSPs, which people can borrow against. In return, however, they enjoy a lucrative pension that most of us would kill to enjoy (hence the article’s title, ‘Pension Envy’).

Where does the solution lie and which options are most practical for the average Canadian? That’s the dilemma, one that was supposed to be on the front burner of federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, but seems to have fallen through the cracks. According to the Globe and Mail, the issue was scheduled to be debated by Flaherty and the provincial ministers in June, but nothing seems to have come of that.

Time is wasting and the issue isn’t going to disappear. In fact, as the number of retiring baby boomers starts to snowball in the coming years, the problem will become more and more acute. Who is going to pay for 30-40 years of retirement for those people who are barely making ends meet right now when they’re still working? Their children? The dwindling number of working Canadians? The Tooth Fairy?

Pension reform may not be a particularly exciting topic for the average person. But it’s something we’re all going to have to deal with sooner or later. We’d better hope it’s sooner – or we’re all in very serious trouble.



The New Trudeau: Justin Time For A New Generation?

Quite frankly, I can’t say I’ve been all that impressed so far with Justin Trudeau, the newly elected leader of the federal Liberal Party. Having been a youngster when his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, swept across the nation in a whirlwind of Trudeaumania back in 1968, Justin seems, at first glance, to be a pale imitation of his dad and certainly has less practical, hands-on political experience. Then again, I’m hardly the young, impressionable voter that the new Trudeau is counting on to set his political career on a rocket-powered journey into the Prime Minister’s seat when Canadians go to the polls again in October 2015.

Last week, I received a solicitation letter from Trudeau asking for my support and, immediately, I tore the letter in half, partly because I don’t actively support any political party and also because, if I did, it likely wouldn’t be one led by Trudeau. My 25-year old son was surprised, saying that he liked and admired the 41-year old leader (his father was nearly 50 when he was elected, just for comparison’s sake). I said that he didn’t seem to have any policies or platforms and very little experience, but none of those things affected my son’s impression. Instead, he liked the new Liberal leader’s optimism and positive approach.

Indeed, reading Trudeau’s letter, there is absolutely nothing about specific things he wants to do as the Liberal leader. The entire missive is filled with words like “hope” and “change,” but not much about how he intends to go about running the country. The closing message reads: “Let’s turn hope into action and show our young people that positive change is possible. And let’s get down to the very serious business of building a better country.”

If this message sounds familiar, perhaps it’s because it appears very similar to the type of crowd-pleasing speeches that helped get Barack Obama elected for the first time to the U.S. Presidency. So far, it seems to be working very well for Trudeau, so why change if it appears to be doing its job? Certainly, it helped him get elected to the Liberal leadership and it’s already pushed the Liberals into the lead in recent polls over the Conservatives.

So, does this signal the beginning of Trudeaumania 2.0, a phrase that was jokingly tossed around last fall – but now appears to actually be a verifiable phenomenon? What’s Trudeau got that’s attracting large numbers of new supporters and making him appear to be a legitimate leader? In an article by veteran reporter Richard Gwyn in the latest issue of The Walrus, he says what the younger Trudeau possesses is “an abundance of emotional intelligence,” which he contrasts to his father’s “intellectual intelligence.”

It’s an interesting argument, but one that certainly seems to fit with the type of support Justin is gaining. Gwyn says, “Trudeau is exceptional at street politics, because he genuinely likes people. He in turn is impossible not to like, a carefree extrovert, forever smiling, happy to kiss babies and their mothers, happy to hug their fathers and blessed with a keen remembrance for people’s names.”

The author goes on to say, “He has the intelligence to understand that people are not moved by analysis or reasoned argument but by emotion and empathy. He has thus spotted, as many others have yet to do, a major new political trend.”

By comparison, his main opponent, Stephen Harper, is seen as an intelligent, dry, humourless leader who has a good idea of how to manage the economic part of Canada, but not much in the way of compassion or warmth.

So far, it all seems to be working pretty well for Trudeau. As Gwyn points out in his summary, “By virtue of his personality and, as can never be underestimated, his name, he has helped revive the underlying sense, now part of Canada’s DNA, that there is more to the country than balancing the budget and trimming the fat, or that there should be and so can be again. “

For argument’s sake, let’s say Gwyn is correct and that, indeed, Trudeau’s “emotional intelligence” is something that Canadians are buying into and that it’s what has helped him win the Liberal leadership race and top the polls, all in just a few short months. Will that be enough to maintain the momentum for the next two years and keep voters mesmerized until the 2015 election?

When Pierre Trudeau was elected Liberal leader in April 1968, his party was already in power, so he instantly became Prime Minister. He called an election for two months down the road, with the public still salivating for his new brand of politics. Prior to becoming leader, he had been a high-powered Justice Minister who introduced groundbreaking legislation on such issues as the legalization of abortion, contraception and lotteries, the decriminalization of homosexuality, the use of Breathalyzer tests for deterring drunk drivers, tighter rules for gun ownership and many other major legal precedents (thank you, Wikipedia, for that information).

Contrast that with Justin Trudeau’s meagre resumé and it’s obvious that he’s got a long way to go before he can earn the trust and respect of the average Canadian voter. As Trudeau says in his recent letter, “We have a long road ahead of us, and I’m going to need your strength, energy and support.”

Emotional intelligence is a great weapon to have on your side, but only time will tell if it’s enough to convince people that you’re ready to be Prime Minister. As Gwyn concludes, “The ball may yet slip out of his hands, but it is still in play.” Let the games begin.