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Tribute: Segal’s memory is truly a blessing

August 19, 2023

By Jamie Swift and Elaine Power. The Whig-Standard.

Four years ago, we interviewed Hugh Segal for a book on Basic Income. He had been diagnosed and was being treated for the disease that ended his life last week.

Typical of Hugh’s gracious generosity, the lifelong Conservative praised the medical team that had treated him, adding that he was at peace with the prognosis that he would likely have five to ten years left. Like so many who’ve been paying tribute to this remarkable Canadian in the past few days, we are so very sorry that he didn’t make it.

Elaine’s first encounter with Hugh was when he came to her Social Determinants of Health class in 2010. He strolled up and down the aisles of the Biomedical Auditorium – one of the biggest at Queen’s — telling over three hundred Health 101 students about some of the many stories he had heard about living in poverty. He and fellow Senator Art Eggleton had collected dozens of anecdotes while writing a Senate report, In from the Margins. But some of his stories sprang from his personal experience growing up in a Montreal working class family.

Central to his message that day was the argument that an unconditional basic income could remedy the indignities that poverty inflicts. First year university students are a tough audience, but with the power of his words, delivered with characteristic bonhomie, he had the young people in the palm of his hand. It was one of the most powerful pieces of oratory Elaine had ever witnessed. Not a note in sight. Eloquent. Articulate. Passionate.

Years later, he told the story of another big lecture hall, this one at the University of Dublin’s business school. He again came across to his audience as a lonely Conservative booster of a guaranteed annual income.

“My listeners,” he recalled, “looked bemused, sympathetic or curious—the way you might look when you see someone walk absent-mindedly into a telephone pole.”

In his delightfully self-deprecating manner, Hugh loved skewering the argument that solving poverty is complicated. He was confident that he was exactly correct. Fixing poverty is simple. Just give people money while maintaining other vital social programs. People are poor, he always explained, because they just don’t have the money to live a decent life.

He knew this because we’d already done it for seniors. In the early 1970s, as a young political staffer in the Bill Davis government he’d had a front row seat 1970s when the province introduced a new program. The Toronto Star was featuring stories of elderly women eating dog food. It was the only protein they could afford. Hugh was instrumental in the implementation of what would become the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS). It saw the poverty rate for seniors plummet from 35 per cent to three to five per cent, making Canada an international leader in reducing seniors’ poverty.

Hugh was always available to lend his support to the cause of Basic Income: writing a blog post for the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee, speaking in church basements and on street corners. A proud Kingstonian, he helped to inspire our group to convince City Council to be the first in Canada to back Basic Income. The 2015 vote was unanimous.

The cheerfully stubborn social justice advocate played a pivotal role in the design of Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot, implemented by Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals. It was killed prematurely by a Conservative government in 2018. The Ford Progressive Conservatives claimed the pilot project was unaffordable. Hugh described the abrupt move by his own party as a reflection of “the narrow ideology of fact free analysis.”

Hugh was a guiding light for the Canada’s Basic Income movement. He never lost hope that we would eventually do the right thing by implementing an income floor under working age Canadians. It would erase the shameful stain on our social fabric. We are deeply saddened that he didn’t live long enough to see his dream come true. But we’re also inspired by his persistence. His memory is truly a blessing.

Tribute can be read here.

Jamie Swift and Elaine Power are founding members of the Kingston Action Group for a Basic Income Guarantee and co-authors of the 2021 book, The Case for Basic Income: Freedom, Security, Justice.