Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Basic income denied in Ontario

A change in government brought a basic income pilot in Canada to an abrupt halt, causing chaos and turmoil amongst its recipients. An interview with Jessie Golem, one of the pilot's participants.

Jessie Golem
4 October 2019
Slide from the Humans of Basic Income project.
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Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Jessie Golem is a photographer and was, for a short time, a basic income recipient in Ontario. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with her at the 19th Global Basic Income Congress in Hyderabad, India, to chat about what the programme did for her, and what it meant to have it cut short.

Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: You were, for a short time, a recipient of a basic income in Canada. What was the program you were part of?

Jessie Golem: In 2017, the Ontario provincial government under the Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne introduced a three-year basic income pilot. They chose 4,500 people in four cities in Ontario, all of whom were making under C$30,000 a year, to receive an unconditional guaranteed basic income. The size of the income was put on a sliding scale. You could receive up to C$1,400 a month, but if you were working then it was reduced by 50 cents to the dollar. Because I was working, I received about C$700 a month.

What did receiving a basic income change for you, for good or ill?

It changed a lot for me in really tremendously good ways. Before I was on basic income, I was working four jobs and they were all contract work. I was living right in the middle of the gig economy and that was my entire life. I would be up in the morning and wouldn't get home until late at night. I was trying to build my business as a freelance photographer but was really struggling to do so. I just didn't have the time to put into my photography because I was so busy working.

Receiving a basic income gave me that time. I was able to reduce my hours and focus on my photography business, certain that my rent would always be covered every month. I saw my photography business grow. I was actually making more money than I was before because I wasn't locked into those low-end jobs. I was booking more clients, building my business, doing photo shoots, and just seeing everything grow in positive ways toward the things that I really wanted to do with my life.

Slide from the Humans of Basic Income project. | Photo by author. All rights reserved.

Many basic income advocates say that it is a way of bringing people more freedom in terms of what they do with their lives. Would you agree with that claim?

Absolutely. Apart from my own experience, I have friends who were able to move into safer, cleaner housing. They were able to go back to school. They were able to provide better opportunities for their children and buy healthier food. Being able to do these things gave them a huge sense of freedom and also a sense of dignity.

Tragically, this story doesn't have the happiest of endings. How did the Ontario pilot end?

So in the middle of the Basic Income pilot, there was an election in the province of Ontario and Kathleen Wynne was replaced by a man named Doug Ford who is very, very similar to Donald Trump. He promised during the campaign to not cancel the basic income pilot, and then he very abruptly broke that promise less than a month after being elected.

His decision to end the program more than a year early threw everybody's lives into turmoil. People were locked into leases or schools that they could no longer afford. There were quite a few people who were on the Ontario Disability Support Program, (ODSP) who were able to get out of poverty while on Basic Income. They were all of a sudden thrown back into poverty. It's quite scary. I honestly do believe that some of my friends will die, and I really don't want to have to go to funerals because of this turmoil and this stress that it caused.

It's such a huge abuse of government power. It is absolutely disgusting and disgraceful for somebody to make a promise and then break it because he feels like he can get away with it without any consequences.

Where can people go to learn about the actions you folks are taking as you resist this treatment?

There are numerous basic income networks and groups all over the world, such as the Basic Income Earth Network and the Basic Income Canada Network. My own project, which I created in response to the program’s cancellation, is called Humans of Basic Income. I went and I took pictures of as many basic income recipients in Ontario as I could possibly find. I got around 70 portraits in total. You can see it on my website under the name Humans of Basic Income.

We have launched a class action lawsuit against the government for acting in bad faith and breaking a contract. That will take a very long time to complete unfortunately. It's really hard to find justice, but we have a lot of hope.

In the meantime, we’re raising awareness about basic income, advocating, and really showing the government that what they did was an absolute disgraceful thing. It's really brought a lot of strangers together.

One final question. You’ve experienced basic income as a force for good, but you also have a lived experience of the state not necessarily being trustworthy. How do you advocate for basic income in places where people quite rightly don't necessarily trust the state to follow through?

It's very hard in the face of untrustworthy governments to see any progress happening. When you break promises and you lose the people's trust, then other governments have to rebuild that trust unnecessarily. A lot of trust has been broken in Ontario. There’s now a candidate for the Liberal leadership who has promised that he will implement a basic income pilot should he succeed. I’ve talked to a lot of former recipients about it, and every single person has said, "Well, I don't trust him."

We need is more transparency and honesty. We need less power in governments and more power to the people because really we are the government's boss. Doug Ford is supposed to work for me and the fact that he is not is absolutely shameful.

Slide from the Humans of Basic Income project. | Photo by author. All rights reserved.

This feature on universal basic income was financially supported by a grant from Humanity United.

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