Ontario is spearheading an effort at today's meeting of Canada's finance ministers to get Jim Flaherty to turn his attention to concerns that Canadians are ill-prepared for retirement as the recession erodes savings.
Ontario Finance Minister Dwight Duncan will push for a national summit on pensions during the meeting - asking Ottawa to take a leading role in a debate over whether governments need to take steps to help Canadians' bolster their retirement nest eggs.
Last year, an Ontario commission on pension reform called for governments to investigate expanding the Canada Pension Plan or creating a comparable program to enhance coverage for workers.
Alberta is backing Ontario's call for a national pension summit at Monday's get-together, hosted by Mr. Flaherty, the federal Finance Minister. Alberta and British Columbia are exploring the creation of a supplemental pension plan that residents could join to save more for retirement.
"The adequacy of pensions … is in my view going to be a defining issue of our generation," Mr. Duncan said.
The Conservatives have so far been reluctant to embrace calls to bolster pension savings on a broad scale, although they have introduced incentives to sock away money such as tax-free savings accounts. Ottawa so far has confined its efforts to a study of how to preserve the tiny fraction of workplace pension plans that the federal government regulates.
But pressure has been growing for Ottawa to act in light of eroding private pension programs, the drastic stock market downturn and the inadequate level of savings in most Canadians' RRSPs.
Keith Ambachtsheer director of the Rotman International Centre for Pension Management, has been warning Ottawa for some time that an estimated 3.5 million Canadians, mostly middle-income earners, have inadequate savings for retirement. He says the recent market meltdown has probably increased this to 4.6 million.
Monday's meeting between Mr. Flaherty and his provincial and territorial counterparts takes place at Meech Lake, 20 kilometres outside Ottawa. Ministers will discuss federal and provincial stimulus spending and receive a briefing on the economy from Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney.
Mr. Duncan said Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty has already written to Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the pension summit. Statistics show about two-thirds of Ontarians don't have a workplace savings plan, the provincial finance minister's office said.
"My hope is we can proceed as a country. If we don't, Ontario will have to proceed on its own," Mr. Duncan said.
Alberta Finance Minister Iris Evans said a national pension summit is a "stellar approach," noting that only about 23 per cent of Albertans have a private workplace plan and that there's significant provincial attention being paid to the idea of a supplementary pension program.
"I think you will see a lot of interest around the table [Monday]in whether or not this is something other governments want to get involved in."
She said Alberta is determined to move ahead with B.C. if there's no national initiative.
Toronto Dominion Bank chief economist Don Drummond has said Canadians should be forced or coaxed to save more for retirement and called on Ottawa to consider a new mandatory savings plan that goes beyond the current Canada Pension Plan.
CPP, to which many workers contribute, is designed to provide only 25 per cent of the pre-retirement income on which contributions were based.
The Rotman Centre's Mr. Ambachtsheer is proposing a new voluntary plan, the Canada Supplementary Pension Plan, to provide retirement coverage for those who aren't members of a registered pension plan. This has drawn interest from opposition Liberals, whose party is crafting an election platform.
Mr. Duncan also plans to use the one-day Meech Lake meeting to press for easier access to employment insurance for Ontarians, who he says are shortchanged as job losses mount in the economic downturn. He says the average unemployed Ontarian receives $4,600 less in EI benefits than people in other provinces.