Now Another Canadian Province Wants to Give Everybody Free Money

But there's a pretty big catch for PEI.

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Dec 7 2016, 8:34pm

Image: Flickr/Dennis Jarvis

As the populous province of Ontario gears up to test the idea of a universal basic income—basically, free money for being a living human being—another, much smaller Canadian province is standing up and bravely saying, "Me, too!"

On Tuesday night, the Legislative Assembly of Prince Edward Island, or PEI, passed a motion urging the provincial government to forge a partnership with Ottawa to establish a basic income trial on the island of 147,000 people, which is on Canada's Atlantic coast. According to the language of the motion, this is because the Members of Provincial Parliament believe a basic income "would significantly reduce or potentially eliminate poverty" and boost entrepreneurship.

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But PEI Green Party leader Peter Bevan-Baker, first mover on the motion, has ideas for basic income that differ substantially from the planned trial in Ontario, and others around the world. Namely, he believes that a monthly stipend would allow the province to "do away with" social services at the provincial and federal levels, and replace them with a basic income.

According to Bevan-Baker, this would include maternity and disability leave, as well as social assistance programs.

"Pretty well any program that is part of our social safety net could be replaced in its entirety by a basic income program," said Bevan-Baker. "Basically any government program which is designed to help those which are most vulnerable to get through a tight spot."

Prince Edward Island has an unusually seasonal economy compared to most of Canada, and relies heavily on fishing and farming, Bevan-Baker said. According to him, social assistance programs intended as temporary measures are relied on heavily by the people of PEI, and should thus be replaced with a permanent, continuous form of income.

However, experts and policy groups have warned that basic income should supplement existing social programs, and not replace them.

"To the best of my knowledge, nobody else is talking about replacing all existing social programs," said Evelyn Forget, a University of Manitoba researcher who studies basic income. "Certainly in Ontario, the conversation has been limited to replacing income assistance and possibly the financial aspects of disability support and leaving everything else in place."

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"I think when they start looking at it a bit more closely, they'll likely reach the same conclusion as other jurisdictions, which is that some of these programs are necessary and fill particular needs," Forget said.

Perhaps the most difficult hurdle for PEI will be convincing the federal government to subsidize a basic income pilot. The Ontario pilot is being led by the provincial government, and the federal government has no intention of establishing its own.

"Our government doesn't have plan to launch any project of Basic Income in Canada," said Mathieu Filion, a spokesperson for Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Jean-Yves Duclos, in an email. "It is not in the mandate letter the Prime Minister gave to Minister Duclos and it wasn't in the platform during the last election."

Minister Duclos sees the "merits" in a basic income, Filion continued, and the federal government would be happy to share data with PEI to assist them in establishing a basic income pilot.

But PEI doesn't need data—it needs money, Bevan-Baker said, and PEI is small enough that it shouldn't break the bank for the feds.

"Certainly the federal government seems open to the concept of a basic income of some sort," he said.

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