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John Mlacak, a former Nortel manager, stands to lose as much as 30 per cent of his monthly $3,000 pension. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)
John Mlacak, a former Nortel manager, stands to lose as much as 30 per cent of his monthly $3,000 pension. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Part one: The crisis

Retirement dreams under siege Add to ...

Pensions: What you need to know

  • 84% of public service workers have pensions.
  • 78% of these plans are gold plated defined benefit pensions
  • 25% of private sector workers have a pension plan
  • 16% of these plans are gold plated defined benefit pensions
  • 11 million workers, or 60 per cent, of Canada's workers have no pension at all
  • 8 million or 45 per cent, have no pensions or registered retirement savings plans (RRSPs)

Charles Walker spent his summer overseeing the death of 1,167 retirement dreams.

After 22 years as vice-president of finance at a perennially struggling aluminum mill in Cap-de-la-Madeleine, northeast of Montreal, Mr. Walker was accustomed to tough assignments. But nothing prepared the retiree for his comeback task: assessing the health of the mill's three pension plans after the company was forced into liquidation proceedings in March by its bankrupt Ohio parent, Aleris International Inc.

For three sweltering months, Mr. Walker, 65, toiled in the mill's abandoned, airless offices, making calculation after calculation. His final tally: $46.2-million of pension deficits.

That tab, he estimates, will erase between 30 and 40 per cent of the pensions owed to him and his fellow retirees and employees. "I felt like I was in a morgue," Mr. Walker says.

"You look at this and you say, 'Jesus, this is painful' … I know people in the plant, I know their families. So it is very, very agonizing to see these people who have worked all their life to try and get a pension - and, all of a sudden, it falls apart."

Tools you can use

Do you know what it takes to create a secure retirement? Use this calculator to help create your retirement plan

An interactive explainer breaking down the different kinds of pension plans and the payouts depending on income and age of retirement

Use our glossary to find explanations of key terms related to retirement and pensions

Canadians are facing a national pension meltdown. Decades in the making, it has worsened dramatically during the recession. Businesses are shredding pension promises, retirement savings are shrinking, employees are working longer and the elderly are selling homes and returning to the workforce. As the retirement dream fades, policymakers seem unwilling to tell Canadians they have not saved enough to retire.

"We have overestimated our capacity to protect the needs of retirees," says Harry Arthurs, former head of an Ontario commission that identified numerous flaws in the province's pension regime.

"We now know there is no such thing as a pension or retirement promise," Mr. Arthurs says. "There is no certainty."

A slow retreat by companies from their pension obligations turned into a gallop this year after a severe global recession laid bare the frailties of the promises made to employees. The withdrawal is major factor behind a startling statistic: Eleven million Canadian workers, about 60 per cent of the work force, do not have a pension plan.

Those corporate pension plans left standing also face unprecedented stresses. Market turmoil has punched an estimated $50-billion deficit hole into Canada's corporate pension funds, according to experts who have crunched what little current data is available.

The cost of replenishing the deficit is squeezing businesses when they can least afford it. Pension costs are spiralling as retirees live longer and the baby boom generation heads for the exits: More than 40 per cent of workers will reach retirement age over the next two decades.

A crisis this large isn't just financial. It's also tearing the fabric of Canadian society. Retirement anxiety is changing our notion of personal wealth. Where once a house and two cars were symbols of success, today the measure is more likely to be the size of your nest egg. And as with any wealth metric, there is a class system. At the top of the system is a shrinking royalty. The majority of them are public servants: About 84 per cent of public-sector workers are pension plan members, most of whom have gold-plated pensions designed to guarantee retirees fixed incomes.

At the bottom are the pension paupers, the millions of workers who never had an employee retirement plan - and whose taxes contribute to public-sector pensions that they can only dream about.

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