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NDP and BIG – Unrequited Love?

January 20, 2022

By Roberta Hamilton

Eight years ago I became a founding member of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income. My enthusiasm became boundless, fueled by the conviction that ‘my’ party – Canada’s New Democratic Party – would take up this cause and run with it. I felt that whichever leader championed a Basic Income Guarantee (BIG) would become a second Tommy Douglas, Father of Medicare. 

In 1963, during my last semester at Carleton University, I attended an all-party panel on the federal election. Until then, my politics had run to the non-electoral – mainly, the Canadian University Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.  That night I heard NDP MP, David Lewis, and I was mesmerized by his message and the elegant and precise language that he used to convey his passion for democratic socialism.

After graduation, I took my first job as an untrained social worker at the Children’s Aid Society of Leeds and Grenville. There, in the rural hinterland north of Brockville, I encountered rural poverty, such as I had never believed existed in Canada. David Lewis was right, my country needed change, serious change. And what people needed was money. I worked my first campaign for autoworker Bill Thompson who garnered 536 votes; he seemed pleased by the result. 

Heady days followed, where I found myself on the left wing of the party, ignited by my identification with the people I had met on the scrubby land in Eastern Ontario. At the federal convention in 1971 I voted for Jim Laxer who had co-founded the Waffle movement. In 1975, I voted for Rosemary Brown. But after he defeated Brown, I supported Ed Broadbent; I liked him, and held him in great esteem. 

So, when Toni Pickard, our fearless leader, drew me into BIG activism, I quickly went about  bringing the Good Word about BIG to my NDP compatriots across the land. I sent letters to every constituency in the country urging them to press leader Tom Mulcair to support our progressive version of a Basic Income. Only three responded. 

Yet, in the late sixties and seventies, the NDP – and much of organized labour – had campaigned vigorously for a Guaranteed Annual Income (GAI) in the face of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s belief that the very poor didn’t want to work, and should, therefore, be considered undeserving. (Now there’s an old canard we haven’t beaten down yet!).  

But some support for a GAI did come from Liberal ranks. Notably, the 1971 Report of the Special Senate Committee on Poverty, chaired by Liberal Senator David Croll, advocated passionately for a GAI for all Canadians with “insufficient income”. (Croll, MP for Spadina, had been named to the Senate by his friend Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent because he knew there would be opposition to having a Jew in cabinet). Sociologist Thelma McCormack wrote at the time that a GAI “symbolizes an historic change in our outlook.” 

Although the NDP had apparently lost its way, I persisted in believing that the Party would again see the light, and lead the charge. And, in fact, federal leadership candidate, Guy Caron, would have done just that. But in 2017 he came fourth behind Jagmeet Singh whose support for BIG – speaking kindly – leans towards the tepid and periodic. But Mr. Singh’s attitude towards BIG looks exemplary compared to that of the leader of the Ontario NDP.       

Over three elections my disappointment with Andrea Horwath turned to frustration and anger. Years ago, I made an appointment with her Research Director to try and find out why she had never included Basic Income in her program. I heard something about opposition from some of the unions who supported her. They feared that their members would lose their jobs – jobs discerning who should and shouldn’t get social welfare or disability benefits. (Again, policy underpinned by the deserving/undeserving dichotomy.)

Still, I continue to hope that my Party will return to its glory days of four decades ago. I was heartened when Ian Arthur, Kingston and the Islands NDP candidate in 2017, included a Basic Income in his campaign literature. He won the seat, and he wasn’t alone. On December 16, 2021 Leah Gazan, NDP MP for Winnipeg Centre, introduced private member’s Bill C-223 that would establish a national framework to set up a Guaranteed Livable Basic Income.

BUT, Basic Income won’t get to first base until the party leadership, provincial and federal, takes it up with full mind and heart. After 59 years of NDP membership, through good times and bad, I would still be sorely tempted if another party took up the cause of a progressive Basic Income. Leaving the NDP would make me very sad; part of my identity would be left in the dustbin of history.  There’s nothing quite as devastating as unrequited love.