THUNDER BAY — The provincial government’s announcement on Tuesday that it would cancel a basic-income pilot project came as a shock to social-assistance recipients in northwestern Ontario.
The project, which increased entitlements for 4,000 people in Thunder Bay, Hamilton, Lindsay, Brantford, and Brant County, was intended to last three years. The Progressive Conservatives are discontinuing it after only eight months — despite having promised during the recent election campaign to let the pilot run its course.
Individual participants in the project received just under $17,000 per year (less 50 per cent of earned income), while couples received just over $24,000. Participants with disabilities received an additional $6,000.
Many participants made plans and investments based on those figures. Some were working for the first time in years, since the terms of the project weren’t as restrictive as those that come with Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program. Others told TVO.org that they were finally able to afford healthy food and transportation.
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Now those same participants are wondering how they’re going to get by without the pilot-project money.
Two days after the Tories announced that they would be cancelling the pilot, Sue Paskoski’s phone still hadn’t stopped ringing. A participant in the project herself, her knowledge of social-assistance programs made her a go-to person for those in her community trying to navigate the system. Following Tuesday’s announcement, she effectively became a counsellor for peers who were afraid that the modest gains they’d made would disappear — and that they’d lose everything.
“We took a huge risk being on this program,” said 57-year-old Paskoski. “This was promised by every party ... They stood in front of microphones and TV cameras and said, ‘We have no plans to cancel this. We look forward to seeing the data.’ It was a boldfaced lie.”
She described “terror” among those who reached out: they feared that the decisions they’d made about the money they’d been promised would end up being ruinous. Many of those who got in touch with Paskoski cried on the phone. A few were so distraught that they expressed suicidal thoughts.
Meanwhile, Paskoski was still working out her own fears. The pilot allowed recipients to work without ODSP’s $200 limit before wage garnishing. Paskoski leveraged the guaranteed income against a vehicle loan so that she could drive to her job as a cleaner. Now she’s wondering whether she’ll be so overextended that she’ll lose her home.
“I want to work. It was giving me more self-confidence. It was helping with my health in so many respects,” she said. “My little cleaning job pays my car payment with $3 to spare. If I try to get a full-time job, I risk my Canada pension benefits.”
Debbie Laroque, 59, is terrified at the thought of going back on disability.
“I’m a good person. I’m a hard-working person,” Laroque said. “This pilot program was the best thing that happened to me in a long time because I got to find work I could do and try to get ahead. I just lost my night job. I can’t afford to lose this, too. I don’t know what’s going to happen.”
Laroque’s husband died in a motorcycle collision four years ago, leaving her alone with their two teenage children. Because her children were classified as boarders rather than dependents after they became adults, ODSP reduced Laroque’s allowances for food and utilities: suddenly, her $1,500 monthly income fell to just $910 — a sum she said isn’t enough to support her family.
Laroque fell back on her personal-support-worker training, holding down two jobs in the field. Under the basic-income program, she was allowed to keep the money she made; she used it to help pay down her credit-card debts. She lost her night job when her 33-year-old client died from cancer, and now her bank won’t renegotiate her car loan, since she has only a part-time day job.
She said ODSP was keeping her poor: “I’m going to make $400 every two weeks, and they’re going to take half of that? I’ve worked all my life, and I’m going to end up losing my house because they take away the pilot program? The pilot program is working for all us people right now. They don’t understand. My kids get prescriptions right now. It’s a humongous difference. It’s only $300 a month, but it’s a lot to us.”
Roland Singleton, 41, had been homeless and couch surfing for almost year when he found out that he’d qualified for the basic-income program. He had been precariously employed through one-off construction contracts, but the work had dried up.
In his younger years, Singleton says he made a tidy living in the drug trade, but he’d since grown to become a motivating example for youth in his community of Biiniitiwabik Zaaging Anishnabek First Nation (Rocky Bay), about 150 kilometres northeast of Thunder Bay.
Since Singleton had no fixed address or dependents, he’d been entitled to less than $300 a month under other social-assistance programs — but he refused to go back to the street life. Basic income put an extra $1,000 per month in his pocket, and he was determined to use that money for investment opportunities. He moved into secure housing and immediately registered in a two-year college electrician program.
“I’m in school,” he said. “I’d probably still be homeless if it wasn’t for this program.”
This month, Singleton will complete his first year of college — and he’s already got a placement lined up for September. He’s concerned for his friends at the Thunder Bay Basic Income Speaker School, a self-organized group of program participants who started meeting in July to improve their public-speaking skills.
“I know I’ll get through this, because I have a job waiting for me,” he said. “I’m worried about the people who are on disability and mental illness. It has been great to hear their stories about how it’s making their lives more positive and healthy — not only physically and mentally, but spiritually. This is going to break them, and I think a lot of them are going to take a turn for the worse.”
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. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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