In past recessions, consumers have bucked up their savings, draining liquidity from the economy as they hunker down against rising joblessness. Not this time, though. The average Canadian family’s debt load has bubbled up to $96,000, according to the 11th release of the Vanier Institute of the Family’s report on on Canadian family finances.

At that level, Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney has got to be worried – as should real estate investors: “The debt to income ratio jumped to a new high of 145%,” Vanier says. “Under one scenario, some million households could have a vulnerable or dangerously high debt service load by the end of 2011.”

But then Carney and federal finance minister Jim Flaherty are privy to the same StatsCan figures Vanier collects. Hot on the heels of Ottawa’s announcement to keep consumers buying houses to keep within their means – bubble or not, Vanier notes that House prices in October-November 2009 increased to about $340,000, equal to 5 times the average after-tax incomes of Canadian households. The long-term average is 3.7 times.” Probably the last time Canadians saw housing at 3.7 times income was in 1996 – the bottom of the last real estate bust.

What changes, from decade to decade, from boom to bust and all over again? In a grim conclusion, Vanier argues: “In the 2000s, asset growth was less than half the pace of the 1990s while the growth in debt was twice as rapid. The opposing trends for assets versus debt brought about a much reduced growth in wealth in the 2000s. The 1990s were a decade of sagging savings.”

Canadian consumers, like many plan sponsors, are now having to reckon with the fact that asset growth  does not necessarily fund liabilities.