POLITICS
11/11/2018 10:53 EST | Updated 11/12/2018 15:35 EST

Ontario Basic Income Cancellation Births A Movement In Thunder Bay

They call themselves Disrupt, and they’re ready for change.

Lori Paras, Joshua Hewitt, Sally Colquhoun and Angie Lynch are disappointed that Ontario's basic income pilot was pre-emptively cancelled by the Progressive Conservative government.
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Lori Paras, Joshua Hewitt, Sally Colquhoun and Angie Lynch are disappointed that Ontario's basic income pilot was pre-emptively cancelled by the Progressive Conservative government.

It was pure coincidence that both meetings happened on the same day.

Fourteen participants in Ontario's basic income pilot project met Aug. 8 at a business incubator in the south end of Thunder Bay after the Progressive Conservative government announced it would wind the program down early.

They had been receiving cheques from the province every month, as part of a research project to measure the effect of handing out larger amounts of money than social assistance normally provides, without many requirements. Anyone in Thunder Bay who lived on less than $34,000 individually or $48,000 with a partner had been eligible to apply.

What the participants didn't know was that four and a half kilometres away, the Northwestern Ontario Women's Centre and Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic was also holding a meeting for recipients and people who wanted to help.

"We weren't even aware that these organizations were doing something for us," said Joshua Hewitt, a basic income recipient who organized the first meeting.

Our intention is to grow a movement.Angie Lynch

So the two groups joined forces. Now, a couple dozen locals meet weekly to talk about solutions to poverty and plan demonstrations. They call their group Disrupt.

"Our intention is to grow a movement," said Angie Lynch, an organizer with the legal clinic who leads Disrupt.

COURTESY OF ANGIE LYNCH
Disrupt holds a community meeting at a library in Thunder Bay, Ont.

When Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod told reporters that basic income would be cancelled without providing an end date or notifying participants, Kinna-aweya was flooded with calls. The legal clinic had referred many of its clients, who primarily live on Ontario Works and Ontario Disability Support Program, to the basic income pilot.

"People were fearful, anxious, just beside themselves with worry about what they were going to do," Lynch told HuffPost Canada in an interview.

"That fear was the catalyst to get us to start organizing. People didn't want to just sit down and take it anymore. They wanted their voices heard."

Watch HuffPost Canada's series on the Ontario pilot:

Members agreed on the group's name unanimously. They want to disrupt the status quo for people living in poverty and disrupt the public's ideas about how society should be, Lynch said.

Disrupt members told HuffPost Canada they want higher rates for people on social assistance, a higher minimum wage and better supports for people living with addictions and mental illnesses.

Since the PCs cancelled basic income before actually surveying the recipients about its impact, Disrupt is looking at designing its own survey.

"I don't know if basic income is the answer," said Sally Colquhoun, Kinna-aweya's coordinator of legal services, who's worked with impoverished people in Thunder Bay since the 1980s.

"I know that people who are living in poverty need more money. People who are on social assistance in Canada right now don't get enough money to pay rent and buy food, let alone transportation and winter clothing and all the other basic needs."

The group is meeting weekly at least until Nov. 22, when Minister MacLeod says she'll announce changes to Ontario's social assistance program. So far, the government's attitude hasn't been encouraging to Disrupt members.

Ford's comments were 'a spit in the face'

One of Disrupt's first political actions was a protest of Premier Doug Ford's October visit to Thunder Bay. During the premier's visit, he was asked about cancelling the basic income pilot.

"The best way to help people out of poverty is something called a job," Ford said.

But 70 per cent of the people enrolled in basic income do have jobs. They earn below the low-income measure, meaning they live on substantially less money than others in their area.

"To make statements like that, it minimizes all the struggles that people have gone through ... It's like a spit in the face to how hard they've had to work to survive," said Hewitt.

"I don't understand how these people who claim to be economically responsible and do the best for our country marginalize our most in-need people."

COURTESY OF ANGIE LYNCH
Disrupt members protest PC policies during Premier Doug Ford's October visit to Thunder Bay, Ont.

Hewitt, who's 27 years old, was homeless for eight years until 2017, sleeping in shelters and parking lots. He had just moved into a boarding house when he found out he'd been accepted for basic income.

Working part-time as a groundskeeper for the Waterfront District BIA, money is tight for Hewitt.

The pilot let him pay off his student debt and start rebuilding credit. He also works on his community clean-up organization, StandUp4CleanUp, which was recently recognized by the mayor for making Thunder Bay a safer place.

"There's amazing things that people can do if they're given the opportunities," Hewitt told HuffPost Canada. "Opportunities knock, but if you don't have a door to knock at, quite frankly there's not really a chance."

There's amazing things that people can do if they're given the opportunities.Joshua Hewitt

Thunder Bay needs apartment-style shelters for homeless people, he said, so that they can learn to be independent and feel included in society. People also need accessible, long-term treatment options for addiction and mental health. Hewitt's battle with alcoholism was one of the reasons he ended up on the street.

"I have mental illness I never realized I had, because I'd been coping with alcohol for so long," he said. "I think the province really needs to do more to re-evaluate how we treat addiction and mental health and homelessness."

'She sounded like a Conservative'

On Nov. 2, Disrupt members met with their MP, federal Labour Minister Patty Hajdu. They asked her if the federal government could step in and take over Ontario's project — something that the federal NDP party and the mayors of cities where basic income was being tested have called for.

She said no.

"When I heard Ms. Hajdu speaking, she sounded like a Conservative," said Lori Paras, owner of The Hub Bazaar, where Hewitt's first meeting was held. Paras sat in on that first meeting to make sure everyone had what they needed, but when she heard what basic income recipients were going through, she decided she had to get involved.

"These human beings believed they were getting something ... and we have the duty to honour that agreement, all Canadians," Paras said.

Her friends on the pilot feel like they've been repeatedly "duped" by politicians.

More from HuffPost Canada:


A spokesperson for Hajdu said that the minister told Disrupt that basic income is within the province's jurisdiction, but she'll forward the request to the federal minister responsible for social development, Jean-Yves Duclos.

Hajdu believes that poverty reduction efforts should focus on decent work and "how dignified workplaces can create a base for prosperity," Jamie Smith told HuffPost Canada by email.

Lynch, Disrupt's leader, said she's encouraged by the federal government's plan to introduce a national anti-poverty strategy, but hopes they'll listen to people who live on social assistance and low incomes.

"They're the ones who know what they need the most," she said. "We don't need anymore suits telling us what to do, especially the ones born with silver spoons in their mouths."

This story has been updated with comment from Minister Patty Hajdu's office.

Earlier On HuffPost: