In this Nov. 21, 2017 photo, Jodi Dean helps her wheelchair-bound daughter Madison, who suffers epilepsy and severe osteoporosis, on an elevator as they leave home for a doctor's visit in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. The mother of three received her first basic income check last month and said the extra money gave her family "the breathing room to not have to stress to put food on the table. Rob Gillies/AP

After the program’s sudden cancellation, a three-judge panel hasn’t decided whether to uphold the Ontario government’s decision.

Members of an internationally lauded basic income pilot project in Canada are taking their province to court over its surprise cancellation, arguing that the Ontario government’s decision is unethical and that it was made in bad faith.

On Jan. 27, a three-judge legal panel heard arguments in a Toronto courthouse. They ultimately reserved judgment, meaning they haven’t yet decided whether to uphold the government’s decision or accept the recipients’ request to quash the cancellation.

The heat is on; right now, the cancellation is scheduled to take effect at the end of March. “I’m hoping they understand how sensitive the timing is,” says Tracey Mechefske, a basic income (BI) recipient in Lindsay, Ont., who is one of the plaintiffs in the case.

She and her (employed) husband receive CDN $2,803 a month, part of which enabled her to start a handmade bath and body products company. Now she’s worried she’ll have to give up her business. “Everything is resting on this judgment,” she says.

Basic income is catching on around the world as a way to help people exit chronic poverty, and in some cases help offset unemployment caused by growing job automation. Last week, India’s main opposition party made an election promise to introduce BI. Not to be outdone, the ruling party quickly announced it would give 620 million people a basic income effective immediately.

Publications around the world picked up on Ontario’s BI experiment, which was first announced in 2017 and began sending checks in 2018. It enrolled 6,605 participants in three Ontario communities where poverty is a huge problem: Thunder Bay, Hamilton, and Lindsay. In the first two, about half of participants received BI while the other half were part of a control group and got nothing. Lindsay, however, was a “saturation site” where all roughly 2,000 participants got checks. People living alone were promised up to $16,989 a year, while couples got a maximum of $24,027. People with disabilities each got an extra $6,000 per year.

A grassroots challenge grows

Doug Ford—the brother of the late and infamous former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford—took over as Ontario premier on June 29. He’s a Conservative populist who campaigned on, among other things, a promise not to cancel basic income.

His government cancelled BI a month after he assumed office, saying that the project was “failing.” Central to his rationale for the cancellation was that the previous government said the pilot would run for “up to” three years, though most recipients understood that it would run the full three years.

Recipients were shocked. “We found out it was cancelled through the media,” says Tracey Crosson, a participant in Thunder Bay. “Shouldn’t we have been told first?”

She wondered how they could have possibly known the pilot was failing, if they hadn’t yet bothered to poll recipients to measure its success. “I never got a survey,” says Crosson.

The idea of a court challenge began percolating almost immediately.

Mike Perry grew up in Fenelon Falls, not far from Lindsay and about 80 miles northeast from Toronto. Though he has a law degree and is a licensed lawyer, he’d never practiced law—until now. “When it became clear to me that it didn’t look like anyone else was going to take it on, I thought, ‘why look outside yourself?’” says Perry.

He dusted off his old law books and got to work. Perry is representing four BI recipients: Dana Bowman, Grace Hillion, Susan Lindsay, and Tracey Mechefske.

In the statement of facts he presented to the court, Perry noted that the government deemed the pilot too expensive, yet the 2018–19 budget for BI represented just 0.34 percent of the total social services budget. The lawyer also pointed to email correspondence in which the government also reasoned that the program involved too much paperwork and that it would kill people’s work ethic and disincentivize them from getting jobs.

According to the Ontario Basic Income Pilot Baseline Survey conducted before the first checks were cut, the majority of pilot participants didn’t work — but 35 percent did, 13 percent had two or more jobs, and another 17 percent were in school or job training programs. In court documents, Perry noted in his court documents that only 919 jobs had been posted in Lindsay from Sept. 1, 2017 to Aug. 31, 2018, and that just 308 of them offered pay above $50,000.

If the court rules against Perry’s clients, he intends to bring a class action. “It's about standing up against unfairness. We need to stop throwing people away,” he says. 

BI recipients are holding their breath

Thunder Bay resident Crosson gets CDN $1,915 a month as part of the BI program—a significant raise over the $1,158 she was receiving through the Ontario Disability Support Program.

It allowed her to move out of a friend’s basement into a modest one-bedroom apartment. “I can eat three square meals a day now, and I can go out to see friends,” she says.

I asked hundreds of Ontario BI recipients in an informal poll to tell me what they used their money for. Most people said they used it to eat healthier food and exercise. After that, they used it to pay down debts, access better medical care, and see out-of-town family members they were previously too broke to visit.

If 47-year-old Crosson has to go back on disability, she’ll have barely $50 a month for groceries after paying her rent and bills. “I’m either going to be homeless or I’m going to starve,” she says.

The recipients I spoke with reported feeling depressed and anxious about the pilot’s uncertainty. If the court sides with the government, members of the BI pilot can expect their last cheque to arrive at the end of March. Some BI recipients who were planning on returning to school are now cancelling registrations. Others are worried about where they’re going to live. Another woman who discovered she was pregnant last summer decided to keep the baby partly because she thought her BI would cover daycare costs while she completed her college degree. 

Crosson, for her part, intended to finally get the medical care she needs to care for multiple illnesses, with the goal of returning to work.

“I’m not ungrateful, but I did have a three-year plan,” says Crosson.

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