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Retirement Assia Billig selected to become Canada’s first female chief actuary

Bonnie-Jeanne MacDonald, PhD FSA ACIA, is the director of financial security research at the National Institute on Ageing (NIA) at Ryerson University, Fellow of the Society of Actuaries, Associate of the Canadian Institute of Actuaries and resident scholar at Eckler Ltd. She lives in Halifax.

Earlier this week, the Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions (OSFI) announced that Assia Billig will become the next chief actuary – the first time this position will be held by a woman.

The chief actuary is responsible for ensuring the Canada Pension Plan (CPP) is financially sound and sustainable, as well as maintaining appropriate checks and balances on the future costs of Old Age Security (OAS), Canada’s senior social benefit program.

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Considering that a majority of CPP and OAS recipients are women – a trend that is expected to continue for the foreseeable future – it’s fitting that Canada will have a woman in charge of protecting the financial interests of these much-needed programs.

Women and the CPP/OAS

Working Canadians fund the CPP through payroll taxes, and the chief actuary is largely responsible for ensuring the contributions are adequate to fund the pension promise to Canadians. OAS is financed on a pay-as-you-go basis from the government’s general revenues, so it also needs to be monitored carefully.

As of the most recent census in 2016, there were approximately 24 seniors receiving CPP and OAS for every 100 working-age Canadians. The last chief actuary, Jean-Claude Ménard, was in office for an impressive 20 years. If Ms. Billig does the same, by the time she retires (in 2038), the number of seniors receiving CPP and OAS for every 100 working-age Canadians will jump to 40 from 24 – and 22 of them will be women.

Women tend to live longer than men, have lower workplace pensions and are more likely to become widowed and need continuing health care. So, they have the most to gain from secure, stable CPP and OAS income that lasts for a lifetime.

Future challenges

Ms. Billig’s responsibilities will include preparing actuarial reports on the CPP and OAS, as well as providing advice to the federal and provincial governments. She is highly qualified: a fellow of the Society of Actuaries and the Canadian Institute of Actuaries, Ms. Billig has spent a decade in the chief actuary’s office. She is a well-respected actuary and scholar, both in Canada and internationally, and holds a PhD in mathematics from the University of Alberta.

Another valuable area of expertise Ms. Billig brings to the table relates to senior care. Ms. Billig was part of a group within the International Actuarial Association that prepared a report on the challenges of senior care around the world, which are increasing due to aging populations, including insights on how governments can address these issues.

Arguably, Canada’s main concern is not the CPP or the OAS, but the stress that an aging population will put on our health programs – notably, home and long-term care for seniors. Excluded from the Canada Health Act, home and long-term care are delivered by the provinces and territories through a mixture of publicly funded programs, privately paid services and informal care provided by close relatives and friends acting as caregivers. There are major concerns around the delivery of senior care in Canada today – but these concerns pale in comparison with the concerns around the system’s future sustainability.

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For example, in a coming National Institute on Ageing report, co-author Michael Wolfson and I investigate the future costs of senior care across Canada.

We project the number of Canadian seniors with severe chronic disabilities will double in the next 20 years – meaning double the number of long-term care homes and double the amount of care support provided in private homes unless measured changes are made before then. Again, most of the seniors needing care will be women.

Given the demographics, it’s clear there are some significant challenges ahead for the Canadian population. But policy-makers and future planners in Canada, as well as our aging seniors, will benefit from Ms. Billig’s perspective and expertise.

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