What’s Happening with the Ontario Basic Income Program, feat. Sheila Regehr

Recently we got the unfortunate news that the new administration in Ontario plans on cancelling the current basic income trials. At the time of publishing, the program is still happening, and political pressure on the Ontario government may be quite valuable right now. Jim talked with Basic Income Canada Network Chairperson Sheila Regehr about what’s happening with the pilot and what people can do to push back against its cancellation.

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Episode Transcript

Owen: Hello, and welcome to the Basic Income Podcast. I’m Owen Poindexter.

Jim: And I’m Jim Pugh.

Owen: We have talked a few times about the very exciting pilot going on in Ontario, up in Canada, to pilot basic income there. Just recently, we got some unfortunate news that the new administration in Ontario is planning on shutting the pilot down.

Jim: Now, there’s a lot happening in response to this announcement, and so we thought it be good to provide you all with more information about what’s going on. I was able to sit down with Sheila Regehr, who’s the Chairperson of the Basic Income Canada Network, to get information from her on what’s the situation on the ground.

Owen: Here is Jim’s conversation with Sheila Regehr.

Jim: Sheila, thanks for joining us on the podcast.

Sheila: Thank you.

Jim: We’ve talked a bit about the Ontario pilot in the past, but just to make sure all of our listeners are up to date, can you generally explain what was happening with the pilot and what was going into that prior to the announcement last week?

Sheila: The idea for the pilot, the way the Ontario government set it up — we can talk about what the design of it actually looks like — but essentially they were doing a Negative Income Tax type of model where recipients would receive about $17,000 at a maximum for a single person, and that gets you close to the poverty line in Canada but not quite there, and then proportionately more than that for couples.

There were three major pilot site areas that they decided to test it on. One is the Hamilton-Brantford area, that’s fairly close to where I live in Toronto. Another one was Lindsay, which is interesting because it’s a smaller community, has some rural population as well. Another one in Thunder Bay, which is interesting because it has a fairly high proportion of indigenous people in that community.

Different communities so that we get a different sense of things. The Lindsay segment, in particular, was where about 2,000 of the overall 4,000 recipients would be, so it comes as close as we can to what would be called the kind of saturation site that we saw in Dauphin, Manitoba, here in Canada, in the 1970s.

That’s it in a nutshell. Things got started last year. The rollout was a bit slow. It wasn’t as easy getting people to participate in this study as the government intended at first, but they had a lot of information sessions. They worked with community organizations. They gradually got people on. They staggered the commencement so that Hamilton area people were first.

The first of those people started getting checks in the fall of last year. Then, they decided — there were a few wrinkles, bugs in the system, and a few lessons learned already that they work out, and then Lindsay was started a little bit after that.

I’m not sure about the timing of Thunder Bay, but the last people to join the pilot in Lindsay only came on like maybe three months ago.

Jim: There’s already been a number of people who have been receiving benefits, and as you said, some for close to a year now it sounds like at this point.

Sheila: Yes, some for quite a period of time.

Jim: Now, the big recent news on this was that the Doug Ford government announced last week that they were planning to end the pilot. That was, it seems, in direct contradiction to promises that were made during their campaign. What is the general reaction been to that announcement?

Sheila: The reaction — we were quite stunned to hear this. First of all, it comes out in the summer. The immediate reaction from many, many people across the board was just feeling heartsick and this kind of gut-wrenching feeling for the participants. There are a number of participants who have come out publicly speaking. They’ve actually learned public speaking in order to be able to tell their stories, to talk about their lives before, and how basic income is made to change. They were prepared to face media.

We’ve heard a fair bit from them, and now with this announcement, we’re hearing about more and more people coming forward and talking about the kinds of changes that having this basic income has meant in their lives. It’s just profound to see the things that — the kinds of changes it’s made. Depression lifted. People are registered, they go back to school in the fall. One couple invested some of their extra money to help boost up the small entrepreneurship initiatives that they had started a little bit earlier, to help grow that a little bit.

People had plans. Their lives were becoming better. Like I said, the reaction came from across the board, from lots of unexpected places even, and really, really angry. Much of it directed first at what you mentioned, the fact of betrayal. The fact that the government did — all of the parties on the campaign trail in the spring agreed that they would let the pilot run. Even if they didn’t appear enthusiastic about it, they agreed to let the pilot run.

Most people in democracies don’t like being lied to. A lot of reaction was based on that, and then the reaction started flooding in based on the just devastating consequences it has for participants. Those 4,000, another 2,000 that were part of the control group, but then there’s the many more thousands who were hoping down the line that this pilot was going to help show the government that this was a good policy and it would benefit them too.

The loss is tremendous if it can’t get turned around, and one of the really difficult things is that the government is leaking out little bits of information in dribs and drabs, and it’s hard to figure out what their plan is.

They seem to have told people that they will still get checks in August, but there’s no clear timeline for when it might seriously end, meaning the checks stopped coming, or whether there is some possibility of salvaging this or keeping some of the payments going.

Jim: On that note. I will say just looking from where I am in California, everything you just laid out there as far as the negative effects both around what would be learned from the study but also ripping away these benefits from people, it certainly is terrible.

But it’s also been inspiring to see how much of a pushback there’s been to the announcement. As you said, bringing in people who perhaps were not so actively engaged before, but because of this betrayal, because people had been making these plans, have at least from where I’m at, it seemed like there has been this rallying together to fight back there.

I’m curious to try to get more of your sense given the reaction that’s been happening, does it seem like there actually could be a path to pushing the Doug Ford government to reassess their plans here?

Sheila: It’s really hard to say. Who knows what or who will get through the them? For now, all of our efforts are going into trying to show them how much support there is for this pilot from all different directions including people with a more conservative bent. People with good economic sense who understand that this actually could be a boon for the economy. People who understand that Ontario was looked to as a leader in this.

We fight as long as we can. Then the other thing that’s come up in conversation after the first few days is, are there other possibilities of saving this? Are there ways in which the federal government might be able to take it over? Some people have even suggested there might be some very wealthy philanthropists out there who sees the value in this and might want to take it over.

That seems like a long shot, but the federal government involvement is real. A lot of people are looking for the federal government for some help and some leadership in this, too, and from Basic Income Canada’s perspective, our end goal is to have a national policy, which means it has to come from the federal government. Ontario was a step that we were hoping would help us get there, but the focus in the long term is the federal government.

As you said, this enthusiasm and this rallying of support, if we can use that to reverse the decision on the pilot, that would be great. If we can use it to get the federal government to help be more concerned, and they shouldn’t be bailing out the Ontario government, but they could be helping Canadians. Then, beyond that, if all else fails and those the things don’t work, I would hope that the outpouring we’re hearing will result in lasting partnerships and stronger allies and relationships that we can help use to build the movement longer term.

Jim: Given the energy here, this really does seem like a key moment in the basic income space, not just in Canada, but around the world. I would imagine that some of our listeners may be interested in helping out to defend the pilot in the various ways that you talked about. Are there ways for people to get involved either people who are in Canada or other places around the world?

Sheila: There are quite a number of things that people have got started already and other things that are being planned or possible. The first thing is that there are a number of petitions out there that people can sign. The more numbers we get on those kinds of things, the better. Maybe a separate international petition could be something interesting.

Some people have advised that one way to put pressure on the Canadian government is to have basic income supporters in other countries contact their Canadian ambassador or high commissioner and transmit to them the message that there is international support for this, that it’s important not just for Canada but for the rest of the world too.

Within Canada, we’ve got people interested in talking to their MPPs in the provincial legislature, or their Members of Parliament, or support of Senators even at the federal level. There are rallies taking place. I’ve been out all day, so I haven’t heard about one that was held in Lindsay today. I hope that went off well because that’s a pilot site, and we were hoping to get good media representation. One of the Lindsay members of the provincial legislature is a cabinet minister, and she is the Minister of Labor. So they’re really hoping to put a little bit of pressure on her.

In the long run, anything that anybody can do to just help people understand what basic income means and why it’s important and help develop a constituency that increasingly will support this. Again, one of the good notes to this, or one of the more positive outcomes we’ve seen, is that it looks like the work that we’ve done already has really paid off.

If this pilot had started, and we had not done our work over the last 10 years and people internationally hadn’t done their work and there weren’t other pilots, if this had come up, nobody really knew what a basic income was or anything about it. This level of support would never have been achieved. We’ve done a lot of good work. We have to continue.

Owen: That was Jim Pugh and Sheila Regehr, Chairperson of the Basic Income Canada Network on the Basic Income Podcast.

Jim: First, it was just generally good to hear from Sheila about what’s happening, to better understand what the situation is, because there’s so many moving pieces right now. This is one of those rare situations in the basic income world where there’s actually a lot happening in the moment. Most of what we do is really planning longer term, thinking about what might happen in the future, and this is happening now. There’s tons moving in response to this cancellation announcement.

Owen: Yes, and now is the time to act, especially if you happen to be in Canada, especially if you’re in Ontario, but there may even be ways that you can at least show your support for this pilot and encourage the Ford administration to change their minds because this is the moment when that might happen.

Jim: And this is — we’ve talked about this. Obviously, there’s very real-world negative consequences if this cancellation happens, these people have been planning on how we’re going to change our lives with this money, and suddenly, that’s potentially being ripped away.

But I thought that something Sheila mentioned is definitely true, which is that Ontario is being viewed as a leader in basic income around the world. This isn’t actually just a Canada issue, this is a global issue. This affects all of our efforts towards basic income. What happens in this moment is going to have ripple effects everywhere.

As you said, if you can, speak out on this, engage in whatever way you’re able to, because this is the moment that can make a difference for all of us.

Owen: The one thing I’ll add to that is the one point I’ve seen by a representative of the Ford administration about why they’re doing this, is that there must be a work disincentive if you’re giving people money for nothing, and they’re saying that without evidence. There’s plenty of evidence that there is no work disincentive. It feels like this is just a philosophical thing that they feel like they can get away with now that they’re in power. It’s worth pointing out that the evidence does not hold up there.

Jim: If you want more evidence, you should let this pilot run its course, because then we’ll actually have even — as you say, there’s a lot already, but assuming it matches what we’ve seen before, that there would be yet more evidence around the fact that this doesn’t actually lead to lots of discouragement of work and potentially increases economic mobility actually.

The one thing I’ll add is that I’m certainly worried about what’s happening here, but at the same time, I am inspired as to how much this is bringing people together around the issue. I think that just feeds into this being just such a big moment in the basic income space right now, that there is so many new potential long-term allies that are getting involved here, and that this is an “all hands on deck” moment where something big is happening.

Owen: Yes, absolutely. This obviously is going to be an uphill climb to get an actual basic income in a country such as Canada or the US. Yes, these are big moments. But it’s nice to see that in these big moments, we have a lot of support rallying around.

Jim: Absolutely.

Owen: That’ll do it for this episode of a Basic Income Podcast. Thank you to our producer Erick Davidson. Please subscribe on Apple Podcasts or the service of your choice, and please tell your friends, because we are always trying to grow this movement and bring more people into the conversation. We’ll talk to you next week.

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