Canadians paying dearly for government debt in Canada

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Appeared in the Vancouver Province, February 20, 2020
Canadians paying dearly for government debt in Canada

For most Canadian families, the topic of government debt likely never comes up at the dinner table. And it’s easy to see why. With mortgages, vehicle leases and credit card bills, many Canadians have enough household debt to keep them occupied, so government debt ranks fairly low on their list of concerns.

But actually, government debt now represents a substantial burden for every Canadian regardless of where you live. In fact, as noted in a new Fraser Institute study, government debt—both federal and provincial (adjusted for any financial assets held by the government)—is expected to reach nearly $1.5 trillion this year.

Like households, governments must pay interest on their debt, which is ultimately paid by Canadians in the form of taxes. These interest payments divert resources away from services such as health care and education. Put differently, interest costs create a wedge between the taxes we pay and the actual services we receive.

In every province, Canadians will pay more than $500 per person in provincial government debt interest costs this year. However, the burden of interest costs varies widely across the country as some provinces are more indebted than others.

For example, the Ontario government expects to spend almost $13 billion on government debt interest costs in 2019/20—more than what the province spends on post-secondary education. In other words, each Ontarian will pay approximately $886 in interest payments on the provincial debt.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the province spends $1.4 billion on annual government debt interest costs, nearly double what it spends on education and early childhood development. Consequently, provincial interest costs equal $2,675 per person, the highest number ion the country.

But Canadians don’t just pay provincial interest costs; they also pay interest on federal debt. Ottawa is expected to spend $24.4 billion on federal government debt interest costs in 2019/20—billions more than what we spend on employment insurance benefits, for example.

In total, the provinces and federal government are expected to spend $54.8 billion on combined federal and provincial interest payments this year. On a per-person basis, Newfoundlanders and Labradorians pay the highest combined government debt interest costs in Canada ($3,343 per person) followed by Ontarians ($1,550) while British Columbians pay the lowest ($1,156).

Clearly, government debt comes at a cost, and there are negative consequences associated with persistent budget deficits and debt accumulation. Ultimately, Canadians bear the burden of interest costs and younger generations will continue to pay the price in the future for today’s debt accumulation.

Government debt can sometimes be an afterthought for many people because we don’t necessarily see the impact on our lives. There are more interesting things to discuss at coffee shops, restaurants and the family dinner table, but this issue affects everyone in Canada no matter where you live. When you realize how much Canadian families spend every year just on interest payments to service government debt, the issue doesn’t seem so trivial anymore.

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