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Will Liberals Prioritize Basic Income?

February 9, 2022

By Jamie Swift

Onetime Windsor shoeshine boy David Croll was a reform Liberal who was elected mayor of the automotive city during the hardest years of the 1930s. Ontario’s first Jewish cabinet minister, he broke with Mitch Hepburn over the Premier’s anti-union stance.

“I’d rather walk with the workers than ride with General Motors,” he famously said.

Recruited by the federal Liberals in 1945 to defeat a Communist push in downtown Toronto, Croll was elected as MP for Spadina. Clearly Cabinet material, anti-Semitism kept him on the back bench. He became Canada’s first Jewish Senator in 1955, serving for thirty-six years. In 1971 Croll produce a landmark Senate report on poverty.  

In 1972 he addressed the well-heeled crowd at Toronto’s  Empire Club. Five million Canadians mired in poverty were an “invisible problem.”

They are with us but not of us….We know they exist and most of us believe something should be done about it, but that’s about all.

Croll’s pragmatic poverty report had recommended first steps towards a national Basic Income (BI) plan, one way of addressing the needs of poor Canadians. Otherwise, he wrote, “they will continue to find life a bleak, bitter and never-ending struggle for survival.”

Croll would be disappointed. His report went nowhere in Liberal Ottawa, despite Pierre Trudeau’s administration remaining in office for the next thirteen years, the Joe Clark interregnum a mere blip. Trudeau did make a deal with the New Democrat Premier of Manitoba Ed Schreyer to examine the effects of BI. The comprehensive social science experiment was called Mincome. It was abruptly terminated by a right wing provincial government, it findings unexplored.  

The 1980s and 1990s saw both Liberal and Conservative governments colonized by market fundamentalism and individualist rhetoric, often called neo-liberalism. The Chretien government – essentially business Liberals – gutted unemployment insurance, cynically using the UI surplus to fund deficit reduction. Attacking universal social programs, they urged “individual responsibility and self-sufficiency.”

(In 2001 Sudbury’s Kimberly Rogers was sentenced to house arrest during a withering heat wave. She had supposedly defrauded the welfare system by accepting a student loan to continue her social work studies at Cambrian College. Eight months pregnant, she committed suicide in her tiny, stifling apartment. Conservative premier Mike Harris’s welfare minister, Brenda Elliot, responded by saying “At this point, we’re not contemplating any change in the policy of zero tolerance.” That was neoliberalism in action.)

Still, behind-the-scenes organizing in support of BI would persist in a quiet way, buoyed in part by the groundbreaking work of University of Manitoba health economist Evelyn Forget. Prof. Forget unearthed and analyzed the data from the long-buried Mincome study, showing the ways BI had made many lives in Dauphin, Manitoba so much easier. A Basic Income Canada Network emerged in the early 2000s.

Though Stephen Harper’s neo-liberal government was utterly hostility to expanding public provision of any sort, let alone a Basic Income, BI was still denounced as a neo-liberal plot by elements of the astringent left.

With zero progress federally, many BI boosters turned their attention to Ontario, where Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals had taken over from Mike Harris’s hard-faced poor bashing Progressive Conservatives in 2003.

BI advocates, a small part of Ontario’s social justice movement, were not alone in hoping that the McGuinty Liberals would do something about poverty. That government disappointed many. The Harris government had cut social assistance by over 20 per cent. Yet the Liberals seemed satisfied with tiny increases, below inflation. This amounted to years of further cuts.

The business Liberals in the McGuinty government did commission a detailed study of social assistance rules, examining the toxic mess that governs the lives of the poor. Future Premier Kathleen Wynne would later candidly admit that the inquiry was “not given permission to talk about the adequacy of (welfare) rates.”

BI supporters had long argued for an unconditional, surveillance-free income. No more punitive rules. With a basic, livable income Kimberly Rogers would likely be alive today, her child a young adult.

Kathleen Wynne replaced Dalton McGuinty as Liberal leader and Premier in 2013, winning re-election the following year. Hoping that the self-proclaimed “social justice Premier” might well be cast in the mold of David Croll, BI advocates redoubled their efforts.

Here in Kingston we formed Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee, persuading City Council to unanimously endorse BI in 2015 – the first Council in Canada to do so. We knew, of course, that ours was a symbolic win; municipalities would not be the level of government to take real action, social policy being a provincial responsibility. But symbolism matters in politics.

By the time Kingston had voted to support BI, the disarmingly charming KAGBIG member Roberta Hamilton secured a meeting with James Janeiro, the Premier’s lead social policy adviser and an ardent BI backer. We would later tell ourselves that we had helped persuade the Wynne Liberals to launch what, in 2017, would become the Ontario Basic Income Pilot (OBIP) project.

When Wynne unveiled OBIP at a Hamilton event centre, the old industrial city was one of the sites for the pilot.

Thunder Bay had initially been the other OBIP site. Lindsay was a last minute addition as the OBIP “saturation site.” Wynne belatedly brought the southern Ontario town into the mix, immediately doubling the pilot’s budget and sample size. She was aware of how important the Dauphin saturation site had been in the Mincome study decades earlier, her office having consulted Evelyn Forget and long-time Tory BI backer Hugh Segal.

OBIP lasted sixteen months.

In 2018 the newly elected government of Rob “For-the-People” Ford terminated the project, shattering the good faith hopes of four thousand people who had enrolled in OBIP. Ford had promised during the campaign to see it through to the end.  No matter. He had campaigned with a pledge that was clearly more heartfelt: “I believe in letting the market dictate.”

Such ideological clarity is rare in a world of political spin and doublespeak.  One would never hear such words from crafty politicians like Jean Chretien or Dalton McGuinty. As the 2022 Ontario election approaches, the provincial Liberals under Stephen Del Duca have said that, if elected, they’d re-start the BI pilot.

I heard the Liberal leader use the word “ironclad” at Kingston’s Market Square in late-2021. He was referring to his party’s support of another BI pilot. I wonder how those four thousand former OBIP participants are reacting to that pledge. I also wonder whether it will be central to the Liberal campaign. And whether the spirit of David Croll lingers among Liberals.