Dipika Damerla on Pensions, Generation Squeeze and Basic Income

Dipika Damerla, MPP for Mississauga East-Cooksville, speaks at a rally organized by Ukrainian Canadian Congress - Toronto Branch. Rob Beintema

Yuri Bilinsky, NP-UN.

The proportion of low-income seniors in Canada dropped significantly from the 1970s to the 1990s — from 33.1% in 1977 to 3.9% in 1995. But once this figure bottomed out in 1995, it began to increse steadily and in 2011 it was back to the 1980s levels (12.0%).

What is the government of Ontario doing to reverse or at least keep in check this long-term trend of seniors getting poorer? We addressed this question to Ontario’s Minister of Seniors Affairs, Hon Dipika Damerla, MPP (Mississauga East—Cooksville).

She noted that the Ontario Liberals wanted to increase pensions and establish the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan in 2014, but those plans were cancelled due to the agreement with the Federal government to expand the Canada Pension Plan (CPP). The planned CPP expansion will start to be implemented in 2019.

“I agree that there is a number of seniors who are doing very well, but there is also a number of seniors who are struggling. The Liberal Government and PM Trudeau have enhanced the CPP, that will start to help seniors down the road,” said Damerla.

The reaction to the CPP enhancement from some businesses and business associations has been quite negative, as in the case of the recent minimum wage increase in Ontario, which some employers say will hurt their businesses, while the TD Bank predicts about 60,000 jobs lost as a result.

So what overall effect does Damerla expect from the CPP increase and the minimum wage hike? “I think raising the minimum wage is the right thing to do because if somebody’s working 40 hours a week and still can’t support their family with dignity then that’s a problem. If somebody is working full-time, it should be a living wage. There is no easy solution and I am sympathetic to the small business [with regards to the minimum wage increase]. Not so much to the big business because the economy is doing well, larger companies are making record profits. And if that doesn’t translate into everyday prosperity for Ontarians, then that is not fair. No solution is perfect, but on balance I’m very supportive of the raise in minimum wage,” she said.

Today’s young adults are tomorrow’s seniors and there is a widespread belief that young adults in Canada today are doing much worse than their parents did at the same age. The Generation Squeeze campaign says that Ontario is the only province in Canada to report a decline in full-time earnings for the typical 25–34 year old since 2003.

Damerla thinks that falling living standards for the younger generation is not just an Ontario phenomenon but affects a large part of the Western world: “The American Dream, the Canadian Dream have always been that the next generation will have a higher standard of living. So many immigrants come to Canada because they want a better life for their children. The pace of change has really accelerated, technology is moving much faster than it used to in the past. It’s not easy for all of us as individuals and society to react to that change. There is some adjustment but overall I am very optimistic that the next generation will have a higher standard of living. But that’s not going to happen automatically. Our governments have a role to play in ensuring that the wealth generated from the new technologies is fairly distributed.”

This is not just a reference to the basic income idea that is now being piloted in some Ontario communities, said Damerla: “There can’t be only one solution. When we had the industrial revolution, it displaced a lot of people who were engaged in agriculture. Unionization ensured that the workers got a fair share that came out of the industrialization. Those unions may have not happened without the necessary legislation. We have to make sure that the rules around wealth creation are fair so that the workers, who contribute to that wealth creation, are not left behind.”

Dipika Damerla: Profile

Dipika Damerla came to Canada at the age of 21 from India. She told a story which she thought many Ukrainian Canadians can relate to: “The India that I grew up in was very different from the India that is there today. When I was young, my family wanted to by a car, and back then you couldn’t go to a dealership and buy a car, you had to book a car. My family waited 4-5 years and we got a letter saying ‘your car is ready.’ When we went to pick up the car, it was black and my dad said that he had asked for a grey coloured car. The person said, ‘Well if you don’t want to take it, there are ten people behind you that want it,’ so my father took the black car. I had a good childhood, but opportunities were limited and I emigrated to Canada for economic opportunity.”

Damerla has an MBA from Canada’s top school, University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. She worked in banking and then, together with her husband, had her own cell phone business that was later acquired by Telus. In 2011, she was elected MPP in Mississauga East—Cooksville and was re-elected in the 2014 provincial election.

One of Damerla’s key areas of interest as MPP is protection of condo owners and residents. In 2011-15, she worked on the designing of alternative forms of dispute resolutions between condo boards and owners. On November 1, 2017, The Condo Authority Tribunal opened its doors. Damerla noted: “This Condo Authority is transformational because most condo owners don’t even know where to go to get their dispute with the condo board resolved. And most people don’t want to go to court – it’s expensive and time-consuming. The Condo Authority allows for the resolution of small disputes, owners can find information there, like how many people are needed to vote to change a by-law. Right now, The Authority, because it’s brand-new, is focused more on resolving disputes around records, but eventually it will grow in ability to resolve a number of disputes.”

In her tenure as MPP, Damerla was instrumental in getting a $4 million funding for the expansion of St. Sofia Catholic School in Mississauga in 2013. For a long time, the school had a dozen portables with some children spending up to four years in portables. Damerla said: “I was shocked because in most of the schools if you spend one year in portables it is considered not easy because it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter, it’s hard to get to the washroom. My daughter spent one year in a portable and I knew it wasn’t the best environment. So, I worked on getting the funding form the province for the school. Now the school has six new classrooms, a new gym, a new kiss-n-ride pick up, the heating system and other systems were renovated. And I was really pleased because it was the first thing I delivered as MPP, it was really special for me.”

There is a large Ukrainian community in the Mississauga East-Cooksville riding. Damerla said: “I often put the Ukrainian community as a role model to the whole community because the Ukrainian community works hard to get things done and they’re very proud of their heritage, which is very inspiring. We were the first country to recognize Ukraine’s independence. Provincially, now Holodomor is part of the provincial curriculum. And all of this would not have happened without the activism of the Ukrainian community. Every year I go to the Holodomor commemoration and remembrance events. I had the opportunity to meet a survivor of Holodomor at the St. Mary’s Ukrainian Catholic Church in Mississauga. I try my best to represent this community and I want to thank them for their support.”