National Seniors' Council

Spring 2007 CSANews Issue 62  |  Posted date : Jun 06, 2007.Back to list

OTTAWA – Whether the subjects involve health care, income security and personal safety, or more snowbird-related concerns such as out-of-province emergency medical coverage and cross-border travel, the newly formed National Seniors' Council will be able to address and flag all issues that matter to seniors, according to Senator Marjory LeBreton, the secretary of state for seniors.

"Not only will the council provide input in terms of the feedback they're getting from their constituent groups on government policies, programs and services, we will try to give some direction to the council as to some of the areas in which the government can have a direct impact on seniors," says LeBreton, who also holds the senior cabinet post of government leader in the Senate.

"We will ask the council to research issues for us and come back with recommendations on how the government can respond."

In addition to commissioning research, the council will be able to convene expert panels and round tables, and hold consultative meetings with experts, seniors, organizations that provide seniors' programs and services, provincial and territorial advisory bodies for seniors, "and other relevant stakeholders and interested parties," according to a government backgrounder.

Unveiled in March, the council replaces the National Advisory Council on Aging, which was established 27 years ago as an organization that reported to the federal health minister.

The new National Seniors' Council is meant to be a more encompassing body and is headed by Jean-Guy Soulière, the former executive director of the Federal Superannuates National Association and the outgoing chair of the Congress of National Seniors' Organizations, a coalition of 10 major national seniors' groups that represent more than two million older Canadians.

The other members of the council, which can have a maximum number of 12 including the chair, had yet to be announced by the federal government at press time. However, they will include seniors, representatives of groups that serve the needs or interests of seniors, and experts from fields of study related to seniors and aging from across Canada.

"To ensure an open and transparent process," the government advertised the council positions (excluding the chair's job) on the Web (www.appointments-nominations.gc.ca and through the Human Resources and Social Development Canada site) and the government's official newspaper, the Canada Gazette. As well, LeBreton sent letters to various organizations, including the CSA, about the selection process.

Council members – all governor-in-council appointments made by the Governor General on the advice of the federal cabinet – are expected to serve for a term of up to three years on a part-time basis.

"It will be a staggered membership, with appointments for one, two or three years, so that we don't have everybody leaving at the same time," explains LeBreton, who adds that a member could be reappointed once his or her term is completed.

"This way, we will have the ability to retain the expertise or the corporate memory of the council or to bring in new council members, should certain needs arise."

She says that certain groups within the seniors' population that "obviously are in more difficulty" will be targeted by the council for special attention, such as single senior women, who may not have been members of the paid workforce and now struggle financially on minimal government pensions.

The council will also examine issues of importance to older Canadians based on demographic segments: the 50-plus sandwich generation caring for children and aging parents; those in the 65-plus bracket activating their retirement plans; and the 75-plus crowd drawing on their pensions.

LeBreton will serve as a liaison between the council and the cabinet – particularly Health Minister Tony Clement and Human Resources and Social Development Minister Monte Solberg, to whom the council will directly report.

Solberg's department is providing the council with $750,000 in annual funding and with operational support from Human Resources and Social Development Canada's seniors' secretariat which, in turn, is working collaboratively with the Public Health Agency of Canada's division of aging and seniors that falls under Clement's jurisdiction.

But, while Clement and Solberg are the lead ministers on this initiative, some of their cabinet colleagues could also be involved in the council's work, to varying degrees.

"The council could make recommendations of what the members would like to see in the next budget, in terms of taxes or other measures, and I can take them directly to the minister of finance," says LeBreton.

She explains that Jim Flaherty previously sought the advice of seniors and their interest groups before introducing such initiatives as:
  • pension-income splitting, which begins in the 2007 taxation year;
  • permitting phased retirement, allowing employers to simultaneously pay employees, aged 55 years and older, a partial pension while providing further pension-benefit accruals, beginning next year;
  • an increase in the age limit (from 69 to 71) for converting a Registered Retirement Savings Plan into a Registered Retirement Income Fund or using it to acquire a qualifying annuity, as of the 2007 taxation year;
  • an increase in the maximum benefit of the Guaranteed Income Supplement and legislation to enable seniors on a fixed income to apply only once for it;
  • the doubling of the pension income credit from $1,000 to $2,000, which began in the 2006 taxation year and which the government says removed 85,000 pensioners from the tax rolls;
  • a $1,000 increase in the age credit from $4,066 to $5,066, which became effective in the 2006 tax year; and
  • a greater than 30 per cent increase in the refundable medical expense supplement tax credit to $1,000.
Now, Flaherty can obtain the sage advice of the council as part of his pre-budget preparations.

Other issues could be raised with other ministers, such as the portability and equalization of out-of-country medical coverage with Clement, or the passport requirement for entering the U.S., with Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day.

But, as LeBreton points out, neither of these issues falls exclusively under the federal government's jurisdiction. The provinces and territories are responsible for health care, and the U.S. government will decide if and when it will require Canadians to have a passport when crossing the border by land. Still, if the seniors' council had specific recommendations regarding either or both of those files, LeBreton says that she would forward them to the appropriate minister.

A full member of the cabinet and the most powerful senator in the upper house, 66-year-old, Ottawa-born LeBreton certainly has clout in the current government.

She sits on the cabinet's priorities and planning committee, chaired by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and she also serves as a member of the social affairs committee. And, in terms of institutional memory, LeBreton's extends back to the early 1960s on Parliament Hill.

At the age of 23, she moved from Progressive Conservative party headquarters, where she worked as a secretary, to the office of the leader of the Opposition, occupied at the time by then-former prime minister John Diefenbaker, where she served as one of his secretaries.

LeBreton advanced to increasingly important jobs with Diefenbaker 's successors: director of correspondence for Robert Stanfield; tour co-ordinator for former PM Joe Clark; and director of appointments and deputy chief of staff for Brian Mulroney, who named her to the Senate in 1993.

Harper appointed her government leader in the Senate when the Conservatives took power in February 2006, and he gave her the additional responsibility as secretary of state for seniors this past January.

Given her vast experience on both sides of the corridors of political power, LeBreton knows that governments have often appointed advisory councils in the past and that any advice which emerges from these bodies sometimes ends up in a report gathering dust on a bureaucrat's desk – but not so with the National Seniors' Council.

She says that the council fulfils a commitment which Harper made in December 2005 during the last federal election campaign to, as he said, "ensure that there is accountability for how seniors are treated, and to ensure that seniors have a voice in government policy decisions."

Adds LeBreton: "Anybody who knows me personally, knows the way I operate."

"When I seek people's advice, I tend to take it and do things with it. I don't let it sit on a shelf somewhere. The proof," she insists, "will be in the pudding."

Once the National Seniors' Council convenes its first meeting and establishes a "clear agenda" and timetable, it should be in full operational mode soon thereafter, according to LeBreton. "In the first year, I hope that the council will meet at least quarterly."

As the cabinet minister assigned to work closely with the council in its day-to-day activities, the senator's summer will be no less busy than it has been since she took a seat at the cabinet table; she has been answering practically all questions in the Senate directed to the government.

Therefore, thoughts of slowing down and perhaps becoming a snowbird – as appealing as the idea may be at times amid her frenetic life – are for another time. However, two weeks spent in Florida during Parliament's Easter recess provided her with a nice respite and a break from a freak snowfall that befell Ottawa. LeBreton soaked up the sun in Cocoa Beach, where her late parents, Clarence and Florence Mulvagh, used to spend a good chunk of the winter every year.

She says that after hearing about "the awful weather" back home, she can "fully understand" why Canadians choose to be snowbirds.

And now, they have an influential federal cabinet minister – and national advisory council – to advocate on their behalf.

Christopher Guly is a member of the Canadian parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa.