Impressions of a soft-spoken commissioner with substance.

It was a brisk December afternoon when I walked into the office tower in downtown Toronto. I rode the elevator to the 10th floor and was greeted by a makeshift sign: Ontario Expert Commission on Pensions. An arrow pointed me toward a glass door at the end of the hall.

Given the magnitude of the work being done within its walls, the office was remarkably sparse. The impromptu waiting area consisted of a simple couch and a pair of practical chairs. I had barely taken a seat when Commissioner Harry Arthurs came out to greet me.

Looking every part the professor with his greying beard, wire-rimmed glasses and corduroy jacket, he invited me into his office. I soon realized that the modest decor was a fitting setting for the quiet and unassuming commissioner. When Prof. Arthurs started speaking, I had to lean in to hear every word. But what he lacked in volume, he more than made up for in substance. While he was quick to point out that he’s no expert in the field of pensions, he seemed to have a much firmer grasp of the issues than he let on.

I was struck by his practical and optimistic approach to reviewing Ontario’s pension system. He seemed confident in the stakeholders’ willingness to compromise, but he wasn’t under the illusion that everyone will be happy with his final report, due this summer. As he put it: “My ambition is that many of them will say: ‘From our point of view, this isn’t an ideal report. We wouldn’t have written it that way. But we feel it’s tried to take our point of view into account.’”

He spoke with a genuine interest in, and respect for, all of the perspectives that came before the commission—from the large industry associations to a lone pensioner who the system had let down. But there was also a willingness to question long-held industry assumptions.

Also notable was his recognition that the pension community needs to look beyond Ontario’s borders to find the answers. “People’s views and the intensity of their views are often a product of their own immediate experiences. Sometimes, if you can get people to step outside that experience and look at what’s going on in other Canadian jurisdictions, in other countries… you see, ‘Gosh, it doesn’t have to be that way. They had a similar problem; they found a way to fix it. Maybe we can learn from them.’”

That’s probably true. And maybe we can all learn from a soft-spoken professor named Harry Arthurs.

Don Bisch is the editor of BENEFITS CANADA.

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© Copyright 2008 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the January 2008 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.