Resolution in $200M Ontario basic income class action could take ‘years’: lawyer

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Ontario government faces lawsuit over cancellation of basic income pilot
Members of a class-action lawsuit against the Ford government for its cancellation of the Ontario basic income pilot are seeking $200 million in damages. Jaden Lee-Lincoln explains – Apr 22, 2024

The lead counsel in a class action seeking millions for the early cancelling of Ontario’s basic income pilot admits it could take several more years before there’s any resolution to the matter.

Cavalluzzo LLP lawyer Stephen Moreau says the province agreeing to hand over $320,000 to cover legal fees on Tuesday “towards the other side” appears to hint there isn’t any obvious settlement coming soon.

“This began five years ago. How long will it take? Possibly more years,” Moreau said.

In 2019, four Lindsay, Ont., residents who were enrolled in the pilot filed the $200-million class action against the Ontario Progressive Conservative government over the cancellation.

The lawsuit alleges a “breach of contract” after the previous Liberal government introduced the $150-million, three-year pilot in April 2017.

In late March, a judge certified the class action.

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“They were allowed to cancel it early,” Moreau admitted. “They just had to pay the contract price … and that was to continue the program or not continue the program and make the payments that they had promised these people.”

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Moreau says the next step will be the discovery process in which he expects to get copies of all of Ontario’s documents “to see on the inside” what the Conservatives were thinking when they ditched the initiative in 2018.

“And then we get to examine some Ontario representative witnesses to figure out more about what happened,” Moreau said.

The pilot was launched in 2017 under the Ontario Liberals to complement a poverty reduction strategy that already offered financial aid through Ontario Works, the Ontario Disability Support Program and the Ontario Child Benefit.

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Some 6,000 Ontarians initially were engaged in Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay and received a monthly basic income (up to $17,000 per year for a single person) in exchange for regularly completing surveys and agreeing to be part of a research project to determine if fixed payments could be implemented in the future.

In 2018, Ontario’s Ministry of Community and Social Services, then led by Nepean MPP Lisa McLeod, insisted the program didn’t help people become “independent contributors to the economy.”

“It really is a disincentive to get people back on track,” McLeod said.

“When you’re encouraging people to accept money without strings attached, it really doesn’t send the message that I think our ministry and our government wants to send. We want to get people back on track and be productive.”

Hamilton photographer Jessie Golem joined Moreau at Queen’s Park on Tuesday to reiterate how the pilot made her feel secure enough to take a risk in starting a new business after crashing out of a “financially abusive relationship”

At the time she said her typical workweek was somewhere between 60 and 80 hours before being able to fall back on the basic income program and stop working at multiple dead-end jobs.

“I was exhausted from working constantly, yet still finding myself barely able to afford the cost of living,” Golem said.

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“Because of contract work, not having any benefits, sick days or holidays.”

Despite lasting little over a year, researchers at McMaster University were able to find notable improvements in a variety of health outcomes in the majority of 200 respondents to a survey.

The study found that “many recipients reported improvements in their physical and mental health, labour market participation, food security, housing stability, financial status and social relationships.”

They also found recipients used health services less frequently.

Overall, 79 per cent of respondents said they felt a partial or substantive improvement in their health. And when it came to work, the survey found that “the majority of those employed before the pilot reported working while they were receiving basic income. Many reported moving to higher-paying and more secure jobs.”

Moreau says it’s anybody’s guess on whether the province will settle with the plaintiffs as he says he’s received little dialogue related to that outcome.

“It’s got to be a reasonable settlement, obviously, not just any settlement,” he said.

“What is the likelihood? I mean, if you can try and get the government on the phone and ask them, I’d love to hear their answer on that.”

In an email to Global News last month following certification on the class action, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said it does not comment on cases that are before the courts.

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– with files from The Canadian Press, Mike Le Couteur and Kamyar Razavi

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