Mitzie Hunter

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Tell us a bit about your background, and how you came to be so passionate about financial literacy

I was born in Jamaica and immigrated to Canada at a young age. I went to the University of Toronto Scarborough Campus and worked at the Bell Canada call centre while studying part-time to put myself through school. Following this, I was fortunate to have served in both the private and public sectors.

In my role as CAO of the Toronto Community Housing Corporation, as well as CEO of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, I saw how an ability to navigate financial literacy really benefitted those who were fortunate enough to have that exposure. On the other hand, I also saw the danger of being ill-prepared when it came to savings, pensions, and retirement.

Saving rates are down for younger Canadians. Seniors are dipping into their savings to help out family members. These same seniors are living a lot longer than they had planned, which in turn is significantly altering the amount of money they initially thought they had needed to sustain themselves through retirement.

Seniors and younger Canadians need to know how to navigate our banking system, so that they can be empowered to make decisions for themselves that will be financially sustainable in the long run. This is how we build a strong economy – from the bottom, up.

Did you face any challenges in fostering political momentum around financial literacy?

The need for more financial education was a cross-partisan issue and as a result, the financial literacy project was well received by elected representatives at the provincial level. We all wanted to form a better-educated base, and a stronger, more empowered economy as a result.

You also served as Associate Minister of Finance, responsible for pension reform. What are the major challenges around pensions that you encountered?

I was appointed in June 2014 as the Associate Minister of Finance in charge of Pension Reform.

Discussions around the Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) came about because it was clear that there wasn’t enough benefit coverage for Canadians at the federal level.

Ontario put forward a proposal to the federal government to enhance the CPP – It hadn’t kept up with the rising cost of living, and the aging population began to feel the effects.

The enhancing the CPP presented a relatively small adjustment, but it would have allowed for more pension benefit coverage, across a greater amount of people.

It would have also helped the next generation of millennials who are just not saving at the same rate as the generations of the past, in part because of the rising cost of living as well as declining workplace pensions plans.

We were concerned that there would be a generation living in poverty. From a public policy standpoint, that would mean having to pay for more social services at a time when less people were working and contributing tax revenue.

The Conservative Federal government at the time, under Stephen Harper, felt that the solution was simple, and that people should just save more. This was a challenge. They didn’t think that a further reduction from people’s paycheques to contribute to the pension would be a good idea.

Without the cooperation of the Federal government under Stephen Harper, Ontario decided to create pension plan for its citizens that would expand pension coverage.  The ORPP would have offered greater retirement security, and would have offered ALL retired Ontarians a retirement savings floor, regardless of what their employment history had looked like. It would have created an equal opportunity for our aging population.

In the end the government changed at the Federal level in 2015 and under Justin Trudeau the CPP was enhanced to improve benefit coverage for all future working Canadians.

And what do you think young Canadians need to know about pensions and their future economic security?

Pensions are not widely discussed, and the idea of a pension is not something that young Canadians really think about.

We don’t think about the fact that every dollar we spend today is a dollar we don’t spend in the future, but saving just one dollar today is a multiplied amount of dollars in the future. It pays to save.

Young people have a responsibility for their future and they need the tools to make responsible choices for themselves. They work hard and want to be successful. They want to understand money and credit and be financially literate.

The problem? Before I instituted it, as Minister of Education, we previously didn’t have a dedicated grade that taught financial literacy for all students. It’s easier and more beneficial to develop healthy saving habits when you’re younger, before that excitement of that first substantial paycheque hits you. Saving more, earlier on, can have an exponential effect on what the quality of one’s life is later on, and especially into retirement.

An awareness of money, especially in this day and time of precarious employment, unaffordable housing, an aging population and a digital economy, is really important. Families should be having conversations about money more openly. Youth should gain more independence following secondary education, as they move into universities, colleges, and the trades.

It doesn’t have to be scary – saving can start at any time! The way pensions work, putting away a little each month, even when it comes to your first job, can make all the difference in how much you have when you are ready to retire.

Last thing – the prevalence of precarious work in today’s economy makes it even more important that young workers are putting away whatever they can each month into their savings. You never know what might happen, especially as we continue to move towards the digital economy, and jobs shift accordingly. Many young workers never get the chance to contribute to a workplace pension plan.  Often these benefits when offer are not portable so the opportunity to accumulate savings for the future is limited for precarious workers.

You have a lot of experience in non-profit management and business, and rose to the CEO position at a relatively young age. What lessons did you learn through being a young person, and a young woman of colour in business, that you’d like to share with readers who look at your career as an inspiration?

Mentorship is really important – I had a host of mentors from both the private and public sectors who took it upon themselves to encourage me, help me find my strengths, and really make sure I had the access I wanted and needed, early on in my career

Don’t wait for doors to be open for you – push them open yourselves. It’s no longer the time to just nod and wait and smile … we are the change makers, and you should all feel empowered to go for the career you want, and not necessarily the career you think you should have. Go above and beyond.

A number of Btchcoin readers are involved with politics and/or community development- what is your advice to young women already working in these sectors in terms of educating themselves in business/pursuing more education in management?

My advice to young women is to invest in yourself, and to not wait for doors to be opened for you.

I worked through university so that I could put myself through school, studying part-time. I gained management experience very early on, first from starting my own business, to working in a large corporation – Bell Canada – and being promoted very quickly.

In 2007 I decided to pursue an Executive MBA from the Rotman School of Management because it wasn’t enough that I had work experience, volunteer experience, board experience etc. I had reached a ceiling without having a graduate degree, as many do.

It was an investment in time and money, but it was one of the best decisions. Interesting to note, I was one of the only non-private sector folks in my graduating class.

Did my Executive MBA prepare me for politics? I would say that my community work and advocacy prepared me more for this work than formal education, but my degree does give me those tools and confidence that it often takes to succeed in these spaces.

So, as far as advice, I would say … don’t shy away from investing in yourself, especially early on. Take the time and resources to pursue your education and skills, whether formally or informally … it’s never too early or late to make that investment.

The federal election is coming up – in your opinion, which economic issues should young women, and young Canadians in general, be asking their local candidates about?

Here’s what we should be asking – how does the incoming class of elected representatives envision Canada’s presence in the global community and economy?

The nature of work is changing, so what is Canada going to do so that our population can learn the skills and trades of the future – given artificial intelligence, automation, etc?  We cannot fear the future we must embrace it.

How are we prepared? What policies are going to be put in place to ease this transition and ensure this dynamic change doesn’t push whole sectors of the population into the margins?   It is the responsibility of the government to bridge people through these transitions.

What can the federal government do? Well, we need continued and increased investment in STEM, including funding and initiatives to get more women and girls into technology/trades.

We should be looking towards opportunities where women can find financial freedom – would your candidate support this? Ask the right questions, and see what plans your candidates have for your future.