Five Canadians, not two, are as rich as 30% of the population

How an Oxfam Canada report got the numbers wrong
Galen Weston Jr.;
Loblaw Co. Ltd. chairman Galen Weston Jr. speaks before the company’s annual meeting in Toronto on Thursday May 2, 2013. The Canadian Press has named Galen G. Weston as its Business Newsmaker of the Year for 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Aaron Vincent Elkaim

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Oxfam Canada, the aid and development group, yesterday claimed that the wealth of Canada’s two richest men equals the combined worth of the poorest 30% of the country’s population. The number is based on a report entitled “An Economy for the 99%,” which shows “the gap between rich and poor is far greater than had been feared,” according to an accompanying press release. That might be true. But Oxfam Canada’s facts are wrong.

Oxfam Canada lists as the country’s richest people David Thomson, CEO of Thomson Reuters, and Galen Weston, whose holdings include Loblaw parent company George Weston Ltd. and Holt Renfrew. But the headline stat has a flaw: Thomson isn’t actually Canada’s richest man. To build its report, Oxfam drew on data from the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook and Forbesannual list of the world’s richest people. The latter estimates Thomson’s net worth at US$23.8 billion and Weston’s at US$9.3 billion, for a combined US$33.1 billion.

But here’s the problem. Forbes’ rich list ascribes an entire family’s fortune to a single member of the clan. And that simplification hides the fact that David Thomson doesn’t own all of the family fortune. He’s not Canada’s richest person. He’s not even the richest person in his own family.

The 2017 Canadian Business Rich 100 list estimates the Thomson family fortune at $39.12 billion, or US$29.72 billion. Thomson Reuters and some smaller assets are controlled through holding company Woodbridge, which is itself divided among the descendants of patriarch Roy Thomson. David Thomson’s share of the firm is reportedly 14%, putting his estimated net worth at $6.61 billion (US$5.02 billion). The largest stake in Woodbridge is actually owned by Roy Thomson’s granddaughter Shelly Brydson. Her reported 23%, combined with the value of other holdings like plane manufacturer Viking Air and broadcaster VisaRadio, puts her at $8.63 billion (US$6.56 billion).

While Oxfam Canada’s math doesn’t quite add up, it’s still possible to make their point without too many additional rich people. Here’s how we’ll do it: use Canadian Business estimates rather than those from Forbes; convert net worth to U.S. dollars in keeping with the Oxfam report; and use the wealthiest individuals, not families, in descending order, such that for example the Saputo family, number three on the 2017 CB Rich 100, is not represented because the fortune is spread across multiple members.

Using this methodology, we cross the US$33.1 billion figure with just five names: Galen Weston (US$10.04 billion); Uber co-founder Garret Camp ($6.78 billion); Brydson (US$6.56 billion); Alibaba vice-chairman Joseph Tsai (US$6.28 billion); and David Thomson (US$5.02 billion).

It’s clear that a staggering amount of wealth in Canada and the world is held by a shockingly small group of people, and the economic and social consequences of inequality need addressing. But headline writers may want to revise their titles: Five Canadians are as rich as 30% of the population, not two. Or, if you’re attached to the number, two families.