The 2021 Sunshine List In Ontario

Information is an odd thing. Too little is harmful, and too much is worse. It is vital to address the meaning of the information before you decide to publish it or even collect it.

The “Sunshine List” in Ontario

At the beginning – 1996

This is a rather remarkable idea. Publish the list of all employees paid by the province or its municipalities who earned more than $100,000. I suppose the idea, in the beginning, was to convince people that public sector employees were fairly paid. Certainly not vastly overpaid. I think some people sorted through to discover nothing much was different than they thought it would be.

Business professors made more than arts professors, and technology folks made more still. A police officer or nurse could exceed the threshold with a lot of overtime, but not many did.

It all began with the calendar year 1996, and in that year, 4,502 people made the list. The highest-paid was the president of Ontario Hydro at a little over $500,000.

Fast forward to 2021

The list has grown some. The 1996 list of 4,502 names has become 244,391. That elicits several questions.

Why so many more?

In 2021 to be equal to $100,000 in 1996 dollars, you must earn $159,280. If I cull those below that mark, barely 10% of the people remain. 24,948. It is possible that 1996 had 26 pay periods, and 2021 had 27. I didn’t check. Maybe $165,000 would be better. If so, then there were 21,941,

What could it mean?

The public service is at least to some extent larger and more costly if there are more people to serve. The population grew by 33% over the period, so, conceivably, you could argue the 4,502 would have grown to more than 6,000. Why there are at least 15,000 over that standard?

It could mean several things. One)  the nature of what the civil service does is more complex and demanding than it once was – possible. Two) in 1996 the civil servants were underpaid. -also possible. Three) Unions have done better than inflation-adjusted increases – Likely. Four) There is no political will to reign in salaries or to manage work efficiently. – Not impossible.

Why not address the purpose of publishing at all.

One of the classic legal tactics in civil lawsuits is to overproduce data demanded during discovery. In the IBM anti-trust case of the late 1960s, a court order to produce data about sales practices and pricing resulted in 85 tractor-trailer loads of paper. It took three and half years to index it. By then, most of it was obsolete.

Too much information provides little value. There is art in designing communication and its presentation for meaning. Somewhere along the way, the province has lost track of that purpose. They may know exactly what they are doing and don’t want questions about the extra 14,000 employees making more than the inflation and population-adjusted number. 

The price inflation by not constraining salaries affects everyone in the civil service. More likely, the government doesn’t want questions about their overall pay packages and the effect on their budgets. If we took the top 7,500 and said that group compared to the 4,500 in 1996, the cutoff is a salary of $210,000. Inflation account for $60,000. Population and complexity are in the 7,500 number and so not in the price. There may be other factors I haven’t thought about, but it looks like the cost of people has risen too fast.

It would be interesting to address the comparison to the private sector over the same time.

The bits to take away

Governments manage budgets, and there are no external restraints similar to what a business faces.

I have no idea what a fair price for a teacher, firefighter or police officer might be. Maybe they are all still underpaid.

The government should be wiser than to supply a near meaningless list. Its current form is more likely to cause resentment and envy than make its management appear reasonable.


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I build strategic, fact-based estate and income plans. The plans identify alternate ways to achieve spending and estate distribution goals. In the past, I have been a planner with a large insurance, employee benefits, and investment agency, a partner in a large international public accounting firm, CEO of a software start-up, a partner in an energy management system importer, and briefly in the restaurant business. I have appeared on more than 100 television shows on financial planning have presented to organizations as varied as the Canadian Bar Association, The Ontario Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, and Banks – from CIBC to the Business Development Bank.

Be in touch at 705-927-4770 or by email at don@moneyfyi.com.

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