Ontario government, Senator calling for guaranteed annual income pilot project

Senator Art Eggleton is calling on the government to launch a pilot project to study the idea of a basic income in Canada – and he’s not alone. The Ontario government included such a proposal in its budget, delivered Thursday.

Eggleton, a former Toronto mayor and former Liberal cabinet minister, introduced a motion Tuesday asking the Senate to “encourage” the federal government to set up a pilot project to “evaluate the cost and impact of implementing a national basic income program.”

“Quite frankly, the social welfare system that we have throughout this country, mainly run by provinces, it’s just not working,” said Eggleton. “We have one in seven people living in poverty in this country. That’s a shameful thing in a country as rich as Canada.”

Instead of pouring billions into a system that doesn’t help lift people out of poverty, he said, “I think it’s time to try a new approach. And I think a basic income could be that approach.”

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Here’s how it would work: rather than a variety of social assistance programs for low-income people, every Canadian would be guaranteed a set minimum income. People on welfare as well as those working low-wage jobs would qualify, with the government giving them a rebate during tax time to bring their income up to that minimum point.

READ MORE: How would a guaranteed annual income work in Canada?

The idea has been tested before, in Dauphin, Manitoba. An experiment there between 1974 and 1978 found that with a guaranteed income, children stayed in school longer, there were fewer hospital visits, fewer cases of domestic abuse and less need for mental health treatment.

WATCH: A primer on Canada’s guaranteed annual income experiment

Eggleton says that as that experiment happened 40 years ago, it’s time to study the concept again to get some fresh results and a better sense of the costs and benefits of such a system and how it should be administered.

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But, he says, the mechanism is nothing new.

“We already have a guaranteed income plan in this country for seniors. We’ve had one for 30, 40 years now.”

The Guaranteed Income Supplement helped to lift many seniors out of poverty, he said, and a similar system could be applied more broadly.

The idea of a minimum income is gaining momentum, he said. “I think interest is grown because people are seeing that the current system fails.”

In its budget, the Ontario government pledged to work with communities, researchers and other stakeholders in 2016 to determine how to design and implement a basic income pilot project.

And several other governments across Canada have also expressed interest in the idea of a basic income. Mayors from Calgary and Edmonton have shown support and the Green Party made it part of their platform in the last federal election. Quebec premier Philippe Couillard appointed a cabinet committee in January to look at creating a guaranteed income for the province.

Not everyone is so enamoured of the idea though. A 2015 report from the Fraser Institute suggested that the idea would not work in Canada – with one of the biggest issues being that it would be hard to get all levels of government to work together on a single program.

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Eggleton hopes that his motion gets adopted by the Senate, and that the federal government moves forward on implementing a pilot project, with the details of the experiment to be worked out through consultation.

With files from Andrew Russell

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