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First pension town hall hosted by NDP full of concerns, questions about potential CPP exit

The Alberta NDP says it is giving Albertans something the provincial government won't: an opportunity to have their questions and concerns about leaving the Canada Pension Plan heard in person. 

The party hosted Tuesday night what it promised would be the first in a series of town halls about the United Conservative government's proposal to create a provincial pension plan. 

Kingsway Legion in Edmonton was filled for the event. 

"It really scares me and it's not just for myself. It's for everybody who comes behind us. The younger generations, they don't realize right now how important this is," one woman stood up to say. 

A man argued Alberta withdrawing from the CPP, thereby cutting the pot on which interest is generated, would be unfair to other Canadians. 

"Even though I was born in Alberta, I am a Canadian first," he said to applause. 

The Alberta government says it is owed more than half of CPP's total assets – about $334 billion – as was calculated by a third-party analyst. However, CPP's investment board put the number at about 15 per cent, closer to the proportion of Albertans in the CPP.

Another woman, whose family is located across the country, echoed, "The east coast people are telling me the sentiment is that Alberta is greedy, Alberta doesn't care about the rest of Canada, it's just being selfish." 

Some participants had technical questions, like about where the money to set up a provincial fund would come from or whether the provincial government could promise returns like the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. 

One Edmonton resident took the opportunity to ask for a meeting with the NDP about how people receiving disability benefits, such as herself, would be affected. She said the constituency office had so far ignored her request. 

Another demanded the NDP provide more digestible information to share with family and friends who remained unwilling to tune into the public debate. 

One of the younger faces in the crowd directed his question at NDP and Official Opposition Leader Rachel Notley: "If [an Alberta pension plan] were to gain significant progress under a UCP government and in some case you were to be re-elected as the premier of Alberta, would you reverse the work done by a predecessor?" 

Notley told him that the timeline of leaving the CPP is estimated to be almost a decade and that re-entering the national fund would be expensive – if it was allowed. 

"So I don't want us to ever get to that position because I think it creates instability and it will hurt peoples' economic security," she finished her reply. 

At the end of the event, Notley told CTV News Edmonton she was unsurprised by the turnout because of how much worry she's heard. 

"The concern they have is that not only can they not only have their voice heard, they are either given misinformation or no answers and it's a circular discussion that they're in with their government," she said. 

"Every time the circle goes around, the angrier they get. So I would urge the UCP to actually sit down in a room, listen to questions and give straight answers. Albertans deserve that from their leadership."

As one Edmonton town hall participant put it: "How can we make a decision about what we want to do – not that I want to leave CPP – without the information?"

A panel taking questions about the CPP-exit proposal held its third telephone town hall last week

Premier Danielle Smith has defended the format as more accessible. 

But Gil McGowan, the president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), also said Wednesday his members are worried about the security of their pension and frustrated by the information that is available about the government's proposal.

On Wednesday, AFL, representing two dozen unions and some 175,000 workers, published a report that concluded a provincial pension plan is not guaranteed to provide increased benefits and is likely riskier. 

The report, co-authored by pension lawyer Murray Gold, called the proposal unrealistic, dishonest and illusory.  

McGowan said the findings round out criticism by other groups who have refuted the government's math or projected impact. 

"So we've got academics, we've got business and now we've got labour. We're all saying the same thing. I think it speaks volumes that so many groups from diverse backgrounds from across the province are coming to the same conclusion." 

In a written statement, President of Treasury Board and Finance Minister Nate Horner dismissed criticism from the AFL which he called "an inherently partisan organization." 

"We will continue to welcome meaningful and good-faith conversation around the potential creation of an Alberta Pension Plan," he said. 

The NDP's next pension town hall is scheduled for Nov. 29 in Calgary.

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Galen McDougall and The Canadian Press Top Stories

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