Timely Lessons from Ontario’s BI Trial

I had started to write this column before I’d heard news of the horrendous shooting incident in our province. Nothing I could write would have any effect on those whose lives have been lost, those who were injured or those who are left to mourn. Least of all, would any contribution on my part shed any light whatsoever on what possessed Gabriel Wortman create murder and mayhem in such a horrific manner. I’ll leave that to others much more capable than I to attempt to solve. Enough to say that an April weekend in 2020 will go down in history as one of the saddest ever experienced in Nova Scotia.

Close-up of assorted Canadian paper currency

Meanwhile, as COVID-19 maintains its hold on the world, leaving thousands dead and others relying on ventilators to keep them alive, and while we long for a time when some sense of normality will return to our isolated and self-distancing lives, I take some solace in the hope that out of all this might come a real effort to make life easier for the many who are surviving only because of the many assistance plans put in place by our federal and provincial governments. The Canadian Emergency Relief Benefit (CERB), put in motion to assist those whose lives have been severely disrupted by the pandemic, is demonstrating the benefits of a regular, above-the-poverty-line monthly income and making people wonder why it wasn’t implemented years ago.

Had there been a guaranteed annual or basic income (GAI or BI) in place before the virus took hold, the control measures would not have taken such a financial toll on those living below the poverty line, especially here in Nova Scotia, just as Canada Pension, Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement have provided a sense of security to seniors, making their situations much more bearable. As well, the kindness of others willing to pick up groceries, make regular phone calls to those in isolation and assist wherever possible have sheltered those in receipt of these monthly checks to some extent from the economic downturn and the loneliness that can come with self-isolation.

And as I have written more recently, the idea of a GAI/BI has resurfaced as a way to, if not eradicate poverty completely, at least improve the situation of those relying on means tested supports, like provincial social assistance, which fall so far short of covering actually needs and force recipients to make tough choices each month — like, pay rent or buy food?


Interestingly, in March of this year, McMaster University published a study on the results of Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot Project, introduced in Hamilton, Brantford and Brant County in the fall of 2017. Like an earlier pilot program  — the 1973 Manitoba Basic Annual Income Experiment (Mincome) — Ontario’s experiment was shut down by a Conservative government.

But in 2005, University of Manitoba researcher Dr. Evelyn Forget found 1,800 boxes of Mincome records which had been stored (out of sight, out of mind) and was able, thanks to a radio announcement, to reach some of those who had benefited from experiment.


The Ford government in Ontario was much more pro-active, destroying all records of that province’s BI pilot project, but McMaster researchers were able to gather survey responses from 217 of the project’s 1,000 participants, plus in-depth interviews with 40.

I recently watched a webinar in which the results of that research were discussed by Tom Cooper and Laura Cattari of the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction, both of whom were involved in setting up the Ontario BI project, and Dr. Wayne Lewchuk, professor emeritus at the McMaster School of Labour Studies and the Department of Economics, who helped conduct the study.

Like those who’d benefited from Mincome almost 50 years ago, Ontario BI recipients spoke of improvements in their physical and mental health, meaning far fewer hospital or doctor visits indicating much less use of the public health system. Recipients discovered they were “less angry and had a better outlook on life,” adopted better lifestyles, which meant they smoked and drank less, suffered “less stress” and were involved in less “fighting over money.”

The study includes testimonies like that of a 44-year-old woman who said she felt “more relaxed” during the project because she no longer had to argue about the heating bill. Her partner said:

I would not turn on the heat until December. I would be in my place with winter clothes on, sitting there in November and shivering because I’m trying to hold off as much as I can for the heating bills.

Cattari was pleasantly surprised, she said, that although the project had lasted only about 15 months, a decrease in smoking and drinking proved to be a common thread among recipients. Having some money in their pockets also encouraged those who were not working to take a chance by applying for a job, something they hadn’t done previously, certain they would not have a chance at landing it. Others succeeded in finding better-paying positions.


And despite warnings from GAI/BI critics that “If you pay people to do nothing, they will do nothing,” both projects indicated that many people continued to work. In the case of the Ontario project, half the respondents worked before and during the project and those who quit often did so to help out at home or to go back to school to upgrade their education.

Lewchuk gave a very interesting rundown of the Ontario BI project, noting that the notion that recipients of a BI would not be motivated to work was a “mean-spirited and false” assumption made by some opposed to the plan. Not only did he discover that many recipients continued to work or found jobs after not working for some time, he also saw how they became more involved in their communities and discovered a new comradeship with co-workers and neighbors when they suddenly realized the BI provided them with a “resource floor” below which they would not fall.

Cooper, Cattari and Lewchuk agreed that more work could be done as far as designing the best possible income plan which would be aimed at the “98% who want to work, rather than the 2% who don’t want to.” As someone who has been on social assistance, Cattari offered a suggestion as to how to approach any discussions on a revamped plan: “Talk to us,” she said.

As might be expected, not everyone favors a GAI/BI as a way to reduce or perhaps eradicate poverty in our society. In fact, Hugh Segal, a long-time Conservative, is an anomaly among Conservatives in his ardent support of such a scheme.

Even some on the left oppose it, like John Clarke, who describes BI as a plan that “leads us in a direction that would be entirely in keeping with a post-pandemic agenda of austerity for working class people and bailouts of the rich.”

Clarke, who was born in the UK, is a retired organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), described in the Globe and Mail in June of 2019,  as a person whose “guerrilla activism has pitted him against police countless times during the past decade.”

Although OCAP was founded in 1989 on a “premise of concern and action around poverty, homelessness and gentrification in downtown Toronto,” which is definitely a laudable pursuit, Clarke says BI falls short “before this searing crisis [COVID-19] and has even less to offer in the face of it” and that it “fails to challenge precarious work or the degrading of the social infrastructure.”

Fact is, though, that the McMaster Study addresses the issue of “precarious” work, noting:

One hypothesis is that both the previously employed and unemployed benefit from receiving additional money as a result of receiving the basic income. In addition, the previously employed group benefited from the added security of the basic income. In an economy where an increasing number of people are in precarious employment and hence uncertain of access to future employment or income, basic income can serve to smooth out the variance in income the precariously employed group experiences.

Clarke doesn’t seem to have talked to any of those who realized the benefits of a BI in their own lives. It might very well have had a tremendous impact on every person in the province to whom it would have eventually been provided — had it survived the Ford government.


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.




Editor’s Note: On Tuesday, after this column was completed, a group of 50 Senators wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Deputy PM Chrystia Freeland and Finance Minister Bill Morneau to ask that the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) be restructured into a Minimum Basic Income in the short term and:

When this immediate emergency has abated, we urge you to work with Parliamentarians and others to use the lessons from the CERB experience and the entire COVID-19 crisis to craft social and economic reforms and develop a positive legacy for all Canadians.

The signatories include six of Nova Scotia’s nine Senators (Wanda Bernard, Jane Cordy, Mary Coyle, Colin Deacon, Stan Kutcher and Terry Mercer). Missing are Dan Christmas, Michael MacDonald and Stephen Greene.