Canada’s pensions and benefits regime is varied and complex. The federal jurisdiction and each of the provincial jurisdictions has its own minimum standards legislation in addition to the federally imposed requirements of the Income Tax Act. The lack of uniform legislation across the country has a significant impact on how pensions are managed in Canada.

Pensions and retirement savings arrangements in Canada can be divided into three broad categories: employees’ own savings; state-sponsored social-security benefit plans; and employer-sponsored arrangements.

State-sponsored Social Security Benefit Plans

The state-sponsored social-security benefit plans consist of the Canada Pension Plan (or, if the employee resides in Québec, the almost identical Québec Pension Plan) (CPP/QPP), Old Age Security (OAS) and the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). Both employees and employers are required to contribute to either the CPP or QPP (as applicable). Upon retirement, CPP/QPP provides benefits based on an employee’s average earnings, up to certain maximums.

As both OAS and GIS are tax-funded, no employee or employer contributions are required for either of these benefits. Although OAS is not means-tested up-front, it is subject to a “clawback” based on an income threshold. The GIS benefit is means-tested.

Employer-sponsored Pensions or Retirement Savings Arrangements

Other than mandatory participation under the CPP/QPP, employers are not required to establish or participate in any type of pension or savings arrangement for the benefit of their employees. Where employers do establish savings arrangements for their employees, varying degrees of obligations and liabilities arise, depending on the type of arrangement.

Registered Pension Plans

Pension plans that qualify as “registered pension plans” are subject to minimum standards legislation and income tax legislation. In addition, the interpretation of registered pension plan documents and legislation is governed by the common law (except in the province of Québec as detailed below). Accordingly, the roles, obligations, liabilities and entitlements of plan sponsors, plan administrators and trustees of pension funds are shaped and affected by the applicable legislation, the plan documents and the common law.

In Quebec, the Civil Code of Québec (CCQ) sets out the substantive law applicable in the province, subject to specific statute law. Accordingly, where Québec is the applicable jurisdiction, the administration of employer-sponsored registered pension plans will generally be governed by the minimum standards legislation applicable in that province. However, specific issues, such as fiduciary obligations, will also require the application of the CCQ.

Legislative Regime

Unlike in the United States, in Canada, there is no single code equivalent to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) which regulates pension plans. Instead, the pension plan must comply with the legislated minimum standards of the applicable jurisdiction(s) where employees work.

Minimum Standards Pension Legislation

There are nine provincial regimes and one federal regime in Canada, each of which imposes minimum standards applicable to registered pension plans. (Note that the province of Prince Edward Island passed minimum standards pension legislation many years ago, although this legislation has not been proclaimed into force.) Where members are employed in more than one Canadian jurisdiction, multiple jurisdictions may apply with respect to a single registered pension plan. Although employers are permitted to offer pension plans that are more advantageous to employees, each registered pension plan must meet the minimum standards of the applicable jurisdiction(s) to obtain and maintain its registered status. Generally, the province of employment of a pension plan member will determine which minimum standards apply; however, federal minimum standards legislation will apply to members of a plan employed in a federally-regulated industry (i.e., banking, railways, broadcasting, etc.) regardless of the plan member’s province of employment.

While such legislation is not identical and important differences do exist, such minimum standards legislation imposes similar requirements in respect of such things as: eligibility for membership, vesting and locking in; asset transfers; duties of plan sponsors and administrators; funding and solvency requirements; and pension plan investments.

Income Tax Act

To qualify for preferential tax treatment, a pension plan must be registered under the federal Income Tax Act (ITA). Essentially, the ITA limits the amount that may be contributed to a registered pension plan on a tax-sheltered basis as well as the benefits that may be paid from a registered pension plan on a tax-sheltered basis.

Common Law

The underlying documents which create a pension plan (i.e., the pension plan rules and trust agreements) are also subject to the common law (the only exception being plans with Québec members who are not employed in federally regulated industries). Accordingly, the terms of the plan documents, as interpreted through the common law, may prevail to provide greater rights to members than those provided for under pension legislation or otherwise restrict the employer’s abilities with respect to the plan. The following examples illustrate this point. Various issues may arise in the context of registered pension plans which require interpretation of the applicable minimum standards legislation, the terms of the plan documents and the common law, including:

  • a plan sponsor’s entitlement to surplus;
  • a plan sponsor’s entitlement to use surplus to take contribution holidays;
  • a plan sponsor’s scope of power to amend the terms of the plan; and
  • permissible plan expenses that may be charged to the plan.

Collective Bargaining Regime

In a unionized environment, the terms of a pension plan may be collectively negotiated, which may restrict an employer’s ability to alter or amend the plan terms without union consent. This issue may need to be considered in a transaction where the existence of a collective agreement may affect the range of choices available to a vendor or purchaser concerning the treatment of benefit plans applicable to unionized employees.

A collective agreement may require an employer to make contributions for unionized employees to a pension plan that is not maintained or administered by the employer. Whether the employer has additional obligations under such a plan, other than to make the required contributions, may be an issue.

Employer-Sponsored Savings Plans

An employer may sponsor other types of retirement savings arrangements, such as group registered retirement savings plans (Group RRSPs) and deferred profit sharing plans (DPSPs). Employee and/or employer contributions to such plans are locked-in and invested, and the benefits payable are typically equal to the balance of a member’s account, plus or minus any investment gains or losses.

While Group RRSPs and DPSPs are not subject to minimum standards regulation, they are regulated by the ITA. Among other things, the ITA prescribes the maximum contribution limits applicable to such plans. However, guidelines published by regulators may nonetheless set the standard to which such plans should be administered.

Supplemental Plans

An employer may establish a supplemental plan for certain employees to “top-up” their pension plan benefits. As such plans provide benefits above the ITA limits applicable to registered pension plans, they are not subject to minimum standards legislation; however, where such a plan is funded or secured in some fashion, it may be subject to classification as a Retirement Compensation Arrangement and will be subject to particular tax requirements.

Health and Welfare Benefits

In addition to sponsoring pension and retirement savings arrangements, employers may offer health and welfare benefit plans to their employees, generally on either an insured or self-insured basis. Such benefits include: life insurance, accidental death and dismemberment insurance, long-term disability, short-term disability, health care and dental care. Because Canada currently has a system of universal health care, private health care benefits offered by employers are typically top-up benefits covering such expenses as semi-private or private hospital care, drugs and vision care.

While these employer plans generally are not (as such) subject to minimum standards legislation, particular issues may arise, for example, in the context of a sale of a business or communications with employees.