The idea of a basic income for everyone, provided by the government regardless of employment status, is coming back to Canada for the first time since Pierre Elliott Trudeau was in power.
The notion of a basic income for all citizens has circled the fringes of Canadian politics for years. Now, the Ontario Liberal Party has announced plans to investigate a basic income pilot project this year as part of the 2016 budget, which was published on Thursday.
In other words, every single person in one lucky Ontario community may soon receive a payday from the government for doing nothing at all, with no strings attached—sort of. The Liberal Party has indicated that the handout may come at the cost of “savings” in some social services currently provided by the government.
“We will be testing the potential of a basic income to determine if it will provide more consistent support to clients, streamline the delivery of income support, and achieve savings in other areas, such as health and housing supports,” Alissa von Bargen, a spokesperson for the Office of the Minister of Community and Social Services, wrote me in an email.
The plan is in its early stages, Bargen added, writing that the provincial government will discuss the idea with community stakeholders, researchers, and other levels of government over the course of the year.
"I think that will get the attention of the federal government"
Also in the 2016 budget is a plan to make university education free for students who come from households making less than $50,000 CAD per year, through a grants program.
Basic income is often seen as a futuristic idea for a society full of robots and AIs that can work better and harder than humans could ever hope to, but the idea actually has a long history in Canada. In the 1970s, when current prime minister Justin Trudeau’s father was in power, a pilot experiment with basic income in Dauphin, Manitoba, was found to improve the community’s health and happiness; even more teens were completing high school during the pilot.
The Dauphin study was part of the motivation for a 2014 resolution that the Liberal Party of Canada advocate for a basic income pilot, drafted by the National Women’s Liberal Commission. Despite this internal pressure, in addition to calls from politicians outside the Liberal Party to implement a basic income pilot, the federal government has been relatively silent on the issue.
“I think they’re open to the idea,” said Jesse Helmer, a city councilor in London, Ontario, who spearheaded the 2014 resolution. “Now that the government has moved at the provincial level to move for a pilot, I think that will get the attention of the federal government, and that they will be interested in either participating in that or supporting it some other way.”
If the Ontario Liberals do end up implementing a basic income pilot, and the program is picked up at the federal level, it would be a reclamation of Canada’s long left-leaning history in more ways than one.