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Fraser Papers retirees' pensions slashed up to 40%

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He worked for Fraser Papers for 37 years before retiring in 2006 with a good pension. But four years later, the company cut his benefits by 35.4 per cent costing him $1,000 a month.

"And I will lose that until I die," he says. 

On a blustery February morning in the heart of Canada's financial district outside the Brookfield Asset Management building in downtown Toronto, Clyde Winchester says he doesn't know how millions of dollars in the pension fund simply disappeared.

But rest assured, Canada's lax bankruptcy laws were certainly a contributing factor.

In 2009, Brookfield Asset Management, the principal shareholder of Fraser Papers, put the paper mill under bankruptcy protection. Then the Edmundston, New Brunswick mill became the Twin Rivers Paper Company, still owned by Brookfield.

Losing $1,000 a month means the 61-year-old can't buy a new car, doesn't travel as much as he used to or eat out as often. 

"You run a simpler life," he says. "You spend less cause you got less."

So do Winchester's 400 colleagues who got their pensions slashed too, putting a big dent in the Edmundston economy.

"It's hard on everyone down home," he says. Even more so for those who started drawing a pension 20 years ago. 

"These guys didn't have the pensions we had."

That's forced many retirees to re-enter the workforce, many of them in survival jobs. Not well-paying ones like they had. 

Winchester works part time in the pro shop at a local golf club during the summer to help with some of his expenses.

He and his fellow retirees drove 11 hours from Edmundston to Toronto to stand in front of Brookfield to voice their displeasure with the situation and let the company know they will fight them for what is rightfully theirs.

"No matter how long it takes," he says.

Joining them in their fight on Wednesday morning is NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp, who takes the time to meet and listen to the concerns of retirees.

"We're here to tell Brookfield that pension plans aren't unopened oysters to come and play with to make their bonuses this month," he says.

"Pensions are deferred income people gave the company in trust so they would be okay in their retirement."

But instead of a guaranteed monthly benefit, a new pattern is emerging where even successful companies are using creative means to strip retirees of their pensions and benefits.

To put a stop to these "financial games," Topp proposes legislative changes that would put workers first in line to get their money in bankruptcy proceedings.

So profitable companies won't be able to dodge their financial obligations. 

He's also recommending better public pensions so retired workers won't be as reliant on private sector employers.

The NDP has also suggested a doubling of the Canada Pension Plan (CPP), a stronger Old Age Security (OAS) system and allowing people to top up their public pensions.

"So if you start to do that, you have a much more reliable pension system that's not going to come or go with computer games and the stock market," he says. 

Retirees from Thurso, Quebec also attended today's rally. In 2010, they lost 40 per cent of their pensions after the mill was sold to Fortress Specialty Cellulose Inc.

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) represents workers and retirees from Thurso and Edmundston.

"Many of these workers are now in their 80s and the Harper government just sits on their hands," says CEP President Dave Coles.

"The lawyers and the banks get paid first and the pensioners get it up the hind side. Companies are deliberately going into bankruptcy to avoid their encumbrance on the pension plan."

Coles would like to see the unions manage and control company pension plans.

"If you leave it up to the companies they'll invest it in the stock market and you know what happens," he says.

Click here to see more photos from Wednesday's rally.

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