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A tale of two towns: APP stops in Barrhead and Athabasca

Mitch Sylvestre silent on sovereignty during June 13 stop in Barrhead with MLA in attendance, but not in Athabasca
Economist and freelance speaker Tanner Hnidey stopped in Athabasca and Barrhead June 12 and 13 to talk about his vision for an Alberta Pension Plan.

Should Alberta have its own pension plan? Is the province getting taken advantage of by a system reliant on Western over-contributions?

The Alberta Prosperity Project swung through the Athabasca-Barrhead-Westlock area June 12 and 13 with the goal of answering these questions — and more — with the help of economist and Christian commentator Tanner Hnidey, Alberta First Pension Plan chair Mitch Sylvestre, and executive director Nicole Kimpton.

“The ability to come and learn about the possibilities about the Alberta Pension Plan (APP) is an important process as we move along in the process,” said regional MLA Glenn van Dijken during the June 13 stop in Barrhead. “Until the people actually learn the pros and cons of that decision, we feel that it is important that information is getting out there.”

Both events drew around 30 people, with 31 attendees at the Athabasca Seniors Centre and 35 at the Barrhead Senior Drop-In Centre.

Why does Alberta need a pension plan?

Hnidey’s argument for an APP centres around three major pillars: the “Alberta Advantage,” an economic principal known as opportunity cost, and the security ensured by the Canadian Pension Plan (CPP) Act.

“Perhaps the most critical rule is that if the province wants to leave the CPP it must, provide its citizens in the province with a pension plan that is practically identical,” said Hnidey, referring to Section 3 (a) of the act.

“It cannot make the citizens of that province worse off. Citizens, or seniors, to be more accurate, must be better off under the provincial pension plan than what they were previously.”

Using data from the CPP, Hnidey argued Albertans are paying more into the federal pension fund than they’re receiving across the board due to the “Alberta Advantage.”

“We’re younger than other provinces, we work more than other provinces, and we’re wealthier than other provinces,” said Hnidey.

Much of the controversy around any proposed APP has been about how much Alberta would be owed in the split. The provincial government engaged LifeWorks, an HR and technology company, to prepare a report on the feasibility of the split. In August 2023, the company released it's report that stated Alberta’s contributions represented approximately $334 billion as of Jan. 1, 2027.

“This represents approximately 53 per cent of the total estimated Base CPP assets on this date, which is significantly higher than Alberta’s representative population in the CPP, which is about 15 per cent,” read the report. “Due to Alberta’s younger population, higher pensionable earnings, and higher employment rates, contributions by Albertans to the CPP have historically exceeded the benefits paid to Albertans.”

The federal government has countered, stating Alberta would be owed roughly 16 per cent of the fund, which would be about $120 billion. Either way, Hnidey said the math still works out.

“Even if it is that $120 billion number, it’s still enough to make a go of it,” said Hnidey.

Both Sylvestre and Hnidey agreed that a pension plan needed to be separate from any government for it to function properly — Hnidey referred to the need for an “infinite chasm between the two.”

“We want (the fund) acting wisely, earning a lot of money and making sure it is there for us when we retire. That’s it,” said Hnidey. “It’s not to push a social agenda, it’s not to push a diversity equality or inclusion agenda, it’s not to advance government’s objectives or ideals.”

Same group, different talking points

The major difference between the two presentations was the presence of van Dijken. The MLA gave a short speech to the crowd in Barrhead, focusing on the importance of information, and pushing back against common opposition talking points.

“There is a lot of misinformation out there with regards to the nay-sayers saying that the Alberta government wants to steal your pension,” said van Dijken. “I find that pretty disingenuous, but it would be like saying the Trudeau government is stealing your pension.”

van Dijken also referenced the LifeWorks report, which his government commissioned prior to the 2023 election.

“From what we saw with the LifeWorks report we felt it very important that Albertans get that information,” he said. “There was pushback from the federal government and pushback from the CPP investment board.

“They weren’t advertising anywhere else in the country about how great they were other than in Alberta because they saw the threat of Alberta deciding to leave.”

Notably absent from the Barrhead discussion was any talk of an independent Alberta, which led Mitch Sylvestre’s talking points during his Athabasca stop.

“If we ever want a sovereign Alberta, this is the first step,” said Sylvestre, who heads the Alberta First Pension Plan. Sylvestre is also a leading figure in the Take Back Alberta movement, at one point remarking that he knew, “every freedom person in Alberta.”

“If we’re going to make (politicians) work for us, then we have to give them a message,” said Sylvestre, who’s aiming for 270,000 signatures by the next UCP AGM in November. “This is a lifetime commitment now.

“The government we deserve is the government we have in Ottawa, because we haven’t been paying attention for such a long time.”

Your voices

The Prosperity Project received a warm welcome in both communities, with locals weighing in on what they thought about the event.

“It is incumbent for all of us to get as much information as you possibly can about any changes regarding our future incomes,” said Teresa Morton, who took a moment to speak with van Dijken after the event. “My advice is to come to meetings and ask the questions so (you) can make informed choices.”

Neither event drew an abundance of youth — Athabasca in particular lacked youthful representation — and some attendees noticed.

“The people who are going to be affected the most are the young people, and if they don’t think they will have a pension plan when they are old enough to collect one, they should do something about it,” noted Bob Morton.

“It sure would be nice to see more young people at these information organizations,” said Joyce Breeneis following the Barrhead event.

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