Occupy Smiths Falls? Anger After Ontario Town Rejects Basic Income

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A small city near Ottawa that has struggled for years with a weak economy is the site of a heated debate about Ontario’s basic income experiment.

Smiths Falls’ city council voted against participation in the province’s basic income pilot project by a vote of 3-2 last month, despite Mayor Shawn Pankow’s support for the idea. Council shot down a proposal to send a delegation to a conference of rural municipalities to lobby for a basic income in Smiths Falls.

smiths falls ontario
Smiths Falls, Ontario. (Photo: Alex Drainville/Flickr under Creative Commons)

But that hasn't stopped some residents from protesting city council's decision.

“This is an occupy moment and we’re here to protest,” Carol Anne Knapp, who started a petition after council’s vote last month, said at a council meeting on Monday.

Darlene Kantor, a local building superintendent who identifies herself as a person with a disability, told councillors she has tenants who have to make a decision every month about whether to pay the rent or feed their children.

“I had a tenant who was an elderly woman who died of starvation,” said Kantor, as quoted in the Smiths Falls News Record. “She had no food in her fridge – no food in her cupboards. There’s people starving!”

"I have to believe they didn’t understand what they were voting down."
— Smiths Falls resident Carol Anne Knapp

Ontario's Liberal government made launching a basic income pilot project part of its budget last year, and a report last fall from the province's consultant on the issue, ex-senator Hugh Segal, suggested a program that would see individuals paid $1,320 per month with $500 more for those with disabilities. It would replace the province's current welfare and disability programs.

The province is looking for several sites, including urban, suburban and rural communities, to test out a basic income.

A number of experts argue that a basic income could soften the blow from the rapid automation of manufacturing.

The provincial government told the Smiths Falls Record News that it, and not the municipal government, will make the final decision on where basic income pilot projects will be implemented.

All the same, some residents are upset about city council's lack of support for the project.

"I have to believe they didn’t understand what they were voting down," Knapp told the CBC last month. "This can be considered not just a handout to those who are less fortunate, including hungry kids and destitute seniors. This could be considered the best stimulus package this community could hope for."

She added: "It's been a devastation since Hershey's left."

Can marijuana and a basic income rescue Smiths Falls?

Smiths Falls was once the site of a Hershey’s chocolate factory and a Stanley Tools plant that were the economic lifeblood of the community.

In the years since both shut down, incomes and home ownership have declined, and a third of the community’s children now live below the poverty line, according to the CBC.

Since then, the Hershey plant has reopened as a production facility for Tweed, Canada’s first publicly-traded medical marijuana producer. And the town has gotten some other boosts, including the arrival of a manufacturer of self-piloting boats.

tweed marijuana
The old Hershey factory in Smiths Falls has become a production centre for Tweed, a subsidiary of Canopy Growth, Canada's first publicly-traded marijuana company. (Photo: The Canadian Press/Sean Kilpatrick)

Mayor Shawn Pankow says a basic income would help people find the confidence to look for work in the new economy, without fear of having their social benefits clawed back.

"If you're living in despair or addiction or crisis all the time because you can't make ends meet and you don't know where the next meal is going to come from, and you're feeding non-nutritious food to your kids because that's all you can afford, the future of those kids is going to be the same as the parents," he said.

But city councillor Dawn Quinn says she doesn’t think the idea will work.

People in poverty “need to be able to learn how to take that money and stretch it. I was raised by a mother who said, 'Give me a pound of hamburger and a bag of macaroni and I can feed my family for a week.' We need more of that kind of thinking," Quinn told the CBC.

“The income all has to come from somewhere and I don't think the taxpayers can afford to be paying any more taxes.”

The basic income idea got a boost from the local county’s health unit, which is backing the idea.

“On a personal level I’m really keen to see whether we can do things differently that would really support the people in our community," said Paula Stewart, chief health officer for Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District.

"On a professional level, I think it’s worth a try."

The basic income debate will return to Smiths Falls' city hall on Thursday, when council will hold an information session for the public about the province's plans.

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