Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot Shows Promise

Perhaps one of Charles Dickens’ most famous lines was Oliver Twist’s “Please sir, I want some more.”

First published in monthly installments from February 1837 to April 1839, Oliver Twist was pretty much an attack on Britain’s Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. As G.K. Chesterton wrote in an introduction to the 1907 edition of the novel, Dickens alone “attacks things because they are bad.” In fact, Dickens regarded the Poor Law to be “profoundly unchristian,” and Oliver Twist’s stay in a workhouse for the poor revealed children, even infants, being provided a minimum amount of food. Workhouses were set up in the belief that fewer people would want to access such places, thus “the poverty rate would reach its correct level.”

A look back to the Middle Ages reveals that monasteries, the wealthiest institutions in England, were a great source of funds designated for the poor, allocating 6,500 pounds a year to that cause. However, when Henry Vlll was refused a dispensation from the Pope that would allow him to divorce Catherine of Aragon and take as his second wife Anne Boleyn, he brought about the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, taking control of their land, thus eliminating a major source of funds for the poor that was never replaced by any private benefactor until after 1850. According to retired judge Henry Brooke, writing in 2015, when the Poor Law was declared in 1834, England and Wales consisted of 15,000 parishes, which were, as one might assume, ecclesiastical units, each of which controlled local government and also had the authority to set or raise a “poor rate,” in order to assist those in poverty.


Flash forward to 2018. An episode of TVO’s The Agenda discussed, with a variety of guests involved in attempts to assist those in dire circumstances, topics including the basic income or guaranteed annual income (GAI) pilot which was established in Ontario last fall and by January had more than 2,500 recipients. Here’s the first comment by a viewer:

If you need various social programs, we’re in a bad way. GAI is an admission that the government has failed. People will lift themselves up. People will only try as hard as they have to and assistance holds them back. The GAI – people will take it, deal a little drugs on the side, and they’re all good. No need to trudge off to work every day – who needs it? Socialism creates poor people. Helping homes run by single mothers encourages the creation of more fatherless families.

Ralph Klein

Ralph Klein

God forbid this guy should find himself in dire circumstances and have to depend on people like himself for any help. Unfortunately, he’s not alone in his criticism of using public money to help provide a reasonable living for those at or below the poverty line. A majority of Canadians have already indicated an unwillingness to fund the GAI publicly.

Interestingly, between 1986 and 1995, two Ontario premiers — Liberal David Peterson and the NDP’s Bob Rae — attempted to alleviate poverty by increasing benefits, a move condemned by the C.D. Howe Institute, which showed that the number of people receiving social assistance had doubled during that period. By 1994, 13% of the population were relying on the “dole.”

Out west, however, Premier Ralph Klein slashed benefits and by 1998, the number of welfare recipients had dropped 41 percentage points to 3%, the lowest rate in the country. Mike Harris, who became Ontario Premier in 1995 and introduced his “Common Sense Revolution,” followed Klein’s example, resulting in less than 6% of the population receiving welfare in his province. But the implementation of some of Harris’ reforms, led to a “new generation of homeless people” as he cut welfare rates by 21.6%. (Harris resurfaced in 2016 as a mentor to Kevin O’Leary in his run for the federal Conservative party leadership.)

The message is that if you make it much harder for people to access welfare, the number of people accessing welfare declines significantly (the C.D. Howe Institute would probably approve). But what happens to those in need? And who cares? Apparently, the introduction, under then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien, of the national child care benefit two years before the Harris cuts made it less of a hardship for some. It would appear though, that throughout history, various methods have been devised to keep the poor poor, just as there has always been a desire to distinguish between “deserving” and “not deserving” poor.


Kathleen Wynne, the first woman premier of Ontario, has enacted laws aimed at providing a higher minimum wage for Ontario workers as well as a guaranteed annual income to people in three different areas of Ontario – Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay. Results from that pilot project are finally being made public and are worth a look. A recent article by the Toronto Star’s Laurie Monsebraaten featured basic income recipients recounting the changes it has made in their lives, giving them a chance to go from “barely surviving to thriving – less stress, better health.”

One woman, who suffers from arthritis, has been able to purchase a walker “with all the bells and whistles;” a man who had lost a leg to a chronic disease is no longer “running out of groceries by the middle of the month,” while a woman who was homeless for almost two years is finally in a position to look for “stable housing.” A Hamilton resident who traded her $722 welfare benefit for a basic income of $1,915.00 has “a full fridge” and is “eating more healthy.” Having access to healthy food is recognized as one way to cut back on the need for medical care.

For a while, in the communities where the basic income was offered, there were few applications, Kwame McKenzie, Ontario’s special adviser on the project told Monsebraaten, as “deprivation makes you afraid to change since you’ve been taught that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” By summer of this year, the program should have about 3,000 enrolled. As indicated above, for those receiving the basic income, it has made positive changes in their lives. One Lindsay resident says she has noticed a significant difference in her community since the basic income was initiated:

Stores are busier, the town is busy, there are lineups at the grocery store and more money in the community.” She is even able to make payments on her credit card debt and hopes to have it paid off by the time the project comes to a close, whereas when she signed on for it, she figured she had “about a year-and-a-half before I would lose my apartment.

Most interesting, however, is the reaction of Ontarians to the project, given that a Toronto Star poll accompanying the article shows 70.19% of respondents believe basic income should be extended to all those in the province living in poverty.

Meanwhile, an attempt to establish a basic income pilot project in PEI has vanished beneath the radar since Green Party leader, Peter Bevan-Baker, in December of 2017, received unanimous approval from the legislature to seek the involvement of the federal government in such an initiative. The response from the feds was a willingness to “provide data to support it.” “Data,” however, is not edible. It would appear that any chance of a country-wide GAI remains somewhere out there in the ether, and while the Nova Scotia government has recently raised certain aspects of social assistance as outlined in my recent piece on poverty, surely it’s time to take a serious look at offering those living in poverty an income that could give them the opportunity to take control of their lives. One of those on the receiving end of Ontario’s GAI said she makes fewer visits to food banks, which is worth considering, given that Feed Nova Scotia was stretched to capacity, even in and around Halifax, as 2017 drew to a close.

Charles Dickens, were he around to comment, might consider the fact that many in our wonderful country live in poverty as “profoundly unchristian.”



Dolores Campbell


Dolores Campbell, a lifelong resident of Sydney, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Cape Breton Highlander, the Nova Scotian, Cape Breton Magazine, Catholic New Times and The Cape Breton Post.