In memory of Dr. J. Rhys Kesselman

March 13, 2024

It is with profound sadness that the School of Public Policy announces the passing of Professor J. Rhys Kesselman. 

The tax free savings account, income splitting, expanding Canada Pension Plan benefits, child benefit programs, payroll taxes, wage rate subsidies, the GST, capital gain taxation, First Nations taxation, the effect of taxation on families with different income levels, pension and business tax reform, tax avoidance and evasion, financing post-secondary education, mandatory retirement, measures of inequality and basic income. Fundamental changes in core components of these policies were strongly influenced by Rhys Kesselman’s foundational work in all these areas. Dr. Kesselman was passionate about working on issues in public finance that affected working people, their families, and businesses, linking sound economic analysis with policy prescriptions. A highly accomplished and productive academic, Rhys was also very much a public intellectual. He was strongly committed to communicating his ideas in public forums, op eds, to governments and to his many students, making sure the public debate was as informed as possible. He was working on a number of issues at the time of his death after a short illness, including an expansive take on capital gains taxation and continuing contributions to the debate over a basic income. 

After receiving his PhD in economics at M.I.T., Professor Kesselman joined the Economics department (now the Vancouver School of Economics) at the University of British Columbia in 1973 where he was a valued and productive colleague and served as director of the UBC Centre for Research on Economic and Social Policy from 1993 to 2003. Two attributes of Rhys shine through from his time at UBC. First, his generosity with his time and effort. Whether advising graduate students, teaching undergraduate classes, or leading a research initiative, Rhys was a ready and steady contributor. Second, was his concern for fairness and equity. His equity beliefs shone through in his policy work advocating for a better and fairer tax system. But his belief in equity was also something he practiced. Rhys was proud to have conceived, developed, and taught UBC’s course on women in the economy. His UBC colleagues remember him fondly.

In 2003, Rhys moved to the School of Public Policy at Simon Fraser University and held the Canada Research Chair in Public Finance until his retirement in 2017. He was highly productive during his years at SFU and into retirement. The introduction in Canada of the Tax Free Savings Account and Registered Disability Savings Plan in 2009 were outgrowths of his research and advocacy as was British Columbia’s Property Surtax and Speculation and Vacancy Surtax enacted in 2018. Rhys always had an open door for students and loved the hallway chats with his colleagues. As one student fondly recalls, “I remember him for his intellect, productivity, and kindness, not to mention his crisp and elegant writing on important public policy topics. Rhys was a truly inspiring professor who impacted the lives of his students and the broader world for the better”.  

Author of over 130 scholarly articles, monographs, and reports addressing the wide range of topics noted above, Rhys continued his research and advocacy post retirement. He produced in 2023 a report on capital gains taxation (Pathways to Reform of Capital Gains Taxation in Canada). In joint work with Professors David Green and Lindsay Tedds, two major pieces of work on basic income emanated: Covering All the Basics: Reforms for a More Just Society; Final Report of the British Columbia Expert Panel on Basic Income (2021); Basic Income for a Just Society: Policy Choices for Canada’s Social Safety Net (2023). In this work, as in so much else, Rhys’ contributions stemmed from his deep insights into the implications of economic theory for public policy. His fellow panelists remember his dry humour and active intelligence with great fondness. 

Professor Kesselman’s research has been recognized by the Reserve Bank of Australia’s Professorial Fellowship in Economic Policy (1985), the Canadian Tax Foundation’s Douglas J. Sherbaniuk Distinguished Research Award (2007 and 2015), and the Canadian Economics Association’s Doug Purvis Memorial Prize for Canadian economic policy research (1998 and 2007). He was a Policy Fellow with the Broadbent Institute.

Canada has lost a consummate scholar and public policy giant. Rhys Kesselman’s work lives on in the impact it has had and will have on the lives and wellbeing of Canadians and the efficiency and fairness of the Canadian tax and transfer systems. He will be deeply missed by his wife and partner, Kathleen Maiman, his sister and brother-in-law Penny and David Medley, and his colleagues and students who had the privilege of knowing and working with him.