‘Billionaire wealth has bounced back’: Canada’s 20 richest people saw their fortunes grow by $37 billion during COVID-19, study says

Canada’s 20 richest people saw their fortunes grow by $37 billion during pandemic, says a new study — as low-wage workers were disproportionately hit by COVID-19’s economic fallout.

The most-wealthy list, which includes several grocery store magnates, shows the country’s top billionaires are collectively worth $178 billion — while front-line grocery store workers at outlets like Loblaws, Metro, Sobeys and Save-On-Foods recently lost their $2 an hour “hero pay.”

Overall, some 1.8 million Canadians have lost their jobs or seen their hours reduced as a result of COVID-19, according to labour force survey data. And even as the country sees glimmers of economic recovery, the gains are uneven.

While the highest wage earners in the country have returned to pre-pandemic employment levels, those earning less than $16 an hour have yet to see employment rates fully recover, says the report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA).

“Billionaire wealth has bounced back and expanded by billions of dollars while millions of Canadians struggle with the consequences of the pandemic,” says the study.

“The economic and social arrangements that produce these outcomes are not laws of nature; they are the predictable results of policy choices.”

Topping the list of the top 20 billionaires is media magnate David Thomson and family, e-commerce businessman Joseph Tsai, and the Weston family — which owns Loblaw and its subsidiaries. Jim Pattison, who owns a chain of grocery stores in Western Canada, ranks eighth on the list.

A House of Commons committee has been studying the impact of COVID-19 on front-line grocery store workers, including the end of pandemic-related pay premiums at numerous grocery chains.

While the pandemic has been the most “economically catastrophic times in Canadian history for most families,” it has also served as a reminder that “inequality is really spinning out of control in this country,” said Alex Hemingway, an economist with the CCPA’s British Columbia office.

Despite stock market turmoil, Canada’s richest cohort has seen overall wealth gains since last year, says the CCPA report. The figures are based on data from Forbes’s annual billionaires list and its real-time billionaire wealth tracking platform, which assesses net worth based on stock market holdings.

A report from the Parliamentary Budget Officer earlier this year found that the top 1 per cent of wealthy Canadians had more than a quarter of the country’s wealth.

While the report says the federal government’s temporary expansion of employment insurance and proposed Canada Recovery Benefit are “a welcome lifeline,” it notes that the new scheme will result in a 20 per cent drop in the amount of money available to jobless Canadians relative to the previous CERB.

“In past crises, Canada and other countries increased taxes on the income and wealth of the richest as a way of fairly spreading the burden of reconstruction and recovery,” the report notes.

Hemingway said policy tools to ensure that recovery include an annual wealth tax, corporate tax reform, and a crackdown on tax havens — measures that are “technically and economically feasible.”

“They also happen to be extremely popular,” Hemingway said. “What seems to be missing is political will.”

While some European countries have like-minded measures already in place, Hemingway said an effective wealth tax should be focused on the ultra-rich.

“One of the key differences is that newer proposals are very much targeted at the extremely wealthy, whereas the older wealth taxes tended to have thresholds that would include some of the upper middle class,” he said.

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The proceeds of a wealth tax could “create ongoing revenue streams” to fund important social policy initiatives, the CCPA report notes.

“We have a very large backlog of badly needed and actually highly productive public investments that we should be making in Canada,” said Hemingway.

“That includes areas such as health care, building a universal child-care system, addressing the housing crisis that exists in so many parts of the country, and addressing the next looming crisis on the horizon in climate change.”

Sara Mojtehedzadeh