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Their favourite outing

Posted by cwaddell under Election 2008, Election 2008 Student articles

Monique Muise

Forget the early-bird special and bingo night. When it comes to popular activities among seniors in Canada, nothing beats a trip to the ballot box. 

In a survey conducted last year by Statistics Canada, seventy-seven per cent of Canadians aged 65 to 74 said they had voted in the last federal, provincial and municipal elections, according to a Statistics Canada survey.

Stephen Harper may have had this figure in mind when he addressed a crowd of seniors at a retirement home in Trois-Rivieres, Que., last Thursday. During his speech, the Conservative leader promised to increase the amount of income that seniors can claim tax-free under the senior age credit by $1,000. The proposed change would mean that seniors could claim up to $17,673 of their income tax-free, said Harper, saving them an average of about $150 a year. 

The government, “should do more to allow seniors to keep a larger part of the money that they have worked hard to earn,” he said.

Thursday’s announcement should not come as a surprise to anyone paying attention to demographic trends in Canada. The sheer number of seniors in the country, coupled with their high rate of political participation, means that they are playing an increasingly significant role in elections. According to Statistics Canada, the number of Canadians over the age of fifty-five now rests somewhere around 4.5 million, and that number is expected to double to almost nine million over the next quarter-century. 

By 2030, seniors will likely account for a full quarter of the country’s population. As the baby boomer generation begins entering their retirement years and birth rates continue to stagnate, what has been dubbed the ‘grey tsunami’ shows no signs of abating.

At a news conference in Winnipeg held less than an hour after Harper’s address in Quebec, Jack Layton took a different approach, attempting to woo older Canadians with the promise of a $1 billion home-care program that would allow 100,000 more seniors to remain in their homes.

“A generation of Canadians is burning out, caring for their parents as well as their kids,” said Layton.

The Conservative’s tax-free income promise reflected the kind of fiscal caution that has been a central theme in the party’s election campaign, but incumbent Liberal candidate and former critic for seniors, Carolyn Bennett, said that the pledge doesn’t get to the heart of the difficulties facing older Canadians.

“It’s just a litany of pretending that they care,” she said. “On the income side, Canadian seniors are doing much better than before…it doesn’t matter what you do on the income side, unless you are really dealing head-on with things like affordable housing.” 

Still, Stéphane Dion’s Liberals have yet to make many major announcements aimed at senior citizens and their families in this election campaign. The one exception came last week when Dion mentioned off-hand during a speech that his government would increase the income supplement for seniors by ten per cent. According to the Liberal platform, released on Monday, the change would provide the nation’s poorest seniors with up to $800 more a year in their pockets. Beyond that, the platform does touch on improvements to transit and housing for all low-income Canadians, but scarcely mentions older Canadians as a separate group. Party spokesperson Marc Roy explained that the Liberal Green Shift plan already includes tax breaks “which benefit everyone, including seniors.” 

While last Thursday’s sharp focus on seniors in the Tory and NDP camps was welcome, it was also likely fleeting, said Marie Smith, president of the United Senior Citizens of Ontario. According to Ms. Smith, issues pertaining to seniors are often glossed over in election campaigns, reduced to a few targeted promises and a smattering of news items. 

“We are the grey power, but the government is ignoring us as seniors,” she said. “I think they’re just concentrating on getting one-up on the other parties…and how far do their promises go anyway?”

Smith added that governments need to pay particular attention to widows like herself, who must pay the same bills they did when their husbands were alive, but with far less income.

“It always seems to stop at the top…and the money goes to the wrong people,” she said. “We can try to put their feet to the fire after (the election), but you know how that goes.”

Monique Muise is a student in the Master of Journalism program at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University.