Can a basic income help Thunder Bay residents struggling with a changing economy?

Almost 300 Thunder Bay residents are homeless. Supporters of Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot Project hope the program will help those people
By Jon Thompson - Published on June 27, 2017
Thunder Bay will be a testing ground for whether Ontario should undertake a dramatic social assistance reform. (Paul Chiasson/CP)

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Thunder Bay residents are eagerly awaiting this week’s announcement of how the provincial government will roll out the Basic Income Pilot Project in their community.

On April 24, Premier Kathleen Wynne announced that 4,000 people — in the Hamilton area (which includes Brantford and Brant County), Lindsay, and Thunder Bay — will participate in the first basic income study undertaken by a Canadian government since the Dauphin, Manitoba, experiment finished in 1979.

Under the terms of the pilot, people with low incomes will receive regular payments from the government in place of the social assistance programs to which they’re eligible now. Supporters believe it will be easier for the government to administer than the current system and will help impoverished citizens out by giving them more financial stability.

Even if Thunder Bay were to receive all 4,000 basic income allocations, it wouldn’t cover half the people currently receiving social assistance in the district (which encompasses Thunder Bay and several other municipalities) whose economy has been redefined by the decline of manufacturing.

Thunder Bay has experienced little to no GDP growth since 2002. Its median income has risen faster than the national average over that time, but this statistic hides that deindustrialization has changed the employment market, resulting in greater income inequality.

The city’s manufacturing output has fallen 40 per cent since the 1980s. Back then, the Port of Thunder Bay employed 2,000 people; today it directly employs just 200 workers.  Forestry and mining were once the city’s economic engines, but they now employ less than 3 per cent of the workforce combined. Broad economic stagnation combined with the decline in well-paying manufacturing jobs have also limited entrepreneurship.

The district’s comparatively high health-care expenditures are not resulting in better outcomes. The population has high levels of chronic disease resulting from social determinants of health common in resource economy communities and among the poor, including stroke, heart disease, diabetes, and most forms of cancer.

Steve Mantis, chair of the Ontario Network of Injured Workers Groups’ Research Action Group, believes the pilot project presents an opportunity to redesign what he calls a “punitive” approach to social assistance.

“It used to be, you graduated from Grade 12 — if that — and you get a good job working at the paper mill, so you’re set for life. But if you can’t do the physical demands of that job, life turns around on you,” Mantis says.

“Once you have a disability and you’re in an economy like we have here — resource extraction, construction, and health care — it’s harder to integrate back into the workforce than it is in places where you have larger, mixed economies.”

The Lakehead Social Planning Council has been advocating for a basic income program in Thunder Bay since 2013, hoping it might improve social determinants of health. Bonnie Krysowaty is a researcher for the group, which takes inventory of Thunder Bay’s social infrastructure. She says 15 per cent of adults in the city live below the poverty line — including a growing number of working poor — while 10 per cent of families lack food security

Krysowaty sees the public sector spending far more money to service poverty than it would cost to provide citizens with enough income to directly improve their basic health and education prospects.

“Social assistance doesn’t assist people,” she says. “It keeps them trapped like a fly in a spiderweb. Basic income will create a ladder where people can climb out of poverty.”


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Job prospects are even bleaker in the northwest’s smaller communities, which are traditionally supported by single mills or mines. Dozens of First Nations communities have no private sector economy at all; as Indigenous people move to Thunder Bay in search of opportunity, many hit barriers in accessing the changing job market

Thunder Bay Shelter House, northwestern Ontario’s largest homeless shelter, has seen usage increase 77 per cent since 2004, peaking at more than 30,000 bed nights per year in 2014. Last year, the city’s first-ever point-in-time homeless count registered 289 people. Among those, 213 identified as Aboriginal.

Indigenous people constitute 35 per cent of homeless shelter clientele across Canada, but they make up 85 per cent of Shelter House residents.

“Where I work, it’s like the walking dead. People are really damaged from being poor for so long,” says Shelter House executive director Gary Mack.

“They’re mostly coming here because they want a better life than their home reserve where there’s [been] a boil-water advisory for 15 years and everyone’s packed into a little house. So they come here and there’s no one welcoming them here to even let them know about the services that are available. There’s nothing for housing. People fall through the cracks and they end up at the shelter,” he says

Charles Cirtwill, president of the Northern Policy Institute, a regional think tank that has made basic income a research focus since the pilot was promised in the 2016 Ontario budget, says Thunder Bay’s relatively small size and its remoteness from larger centres are ideal controls for a basic income experiment.

If implemented effectively, he says, the basic income could increase class mobility despite the difficulties some will experience when responding to the changing job market.

“You’ve got the issue of cultural diversity overlapped with educational participation challenges and that gets us into inter-generational poverty in a way that’s systemized more broadly and more permanently than other communities,” he says.

“All you need to do is talk to some of our Indigenous populations in some of our remote communities or even just in our rural communities. If you’re having challenges in those communities, it’s very difficult to bootstrap yourself up.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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