Guaranteed Livable Income

Inquiry--Debate Adjourned

February 25, 2020


[20:49]

Rose pursuant to notice of February 19, 2020:

That she will call the attention of the Senate to the need to examine and evaluate concrete measures available to the Senate to support the implementation of guaranteed livable income initiatives and to promote substantive equality for all Canadians.

She said: Honourable senators, I rise today to call attention to the need to examine and evaluate concrete measures available to the Senate to support the implementation of guaranteed livable income initiatives and to promote substantive equality for all Canadians.

Canada’s Constitution entrenches a Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guarantees substantive legal rights and equality for all. Despite this legal reality, far too many people in Canada do not experience that equality of opportunity.

Poverty is one of the main obstacles to equality. Poverty affects the way Canadians live, the choices they make and the opportunities available to them.

Poverty also intersects with and amplifies sexism, racism, colonialism and other forms of systemic discrimination. Half of Indigenous children in this country are growing up in poverty.

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, in the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society decision, has ruled that since 2006, at least 44,000 Indigenous children have been needlessly taken into state care largely due to their lack of access to services or resources. Even though Bill C-92 prohibits the apprehension of Indigenous children by child welfare services based on poverty, absent concrete provisions to remedy systemic inequality, First Nations have rightly criticized this as essentially an empty perfunctory gesture.

Millions of Canadians live in poverty.

The majority of Canadians live paycheque to paycheque. Many of those living under the poverty line are employed but are not paid enough to get by. In 97% of neighbourhoods in cities across Canada, a person working in a full-time, minimum-wage job cannot afford to rent a one– or two-bedroom apartment. For young Canadians, this is part of being “Generation Squeeze,” young adults who are facing stagnant earnings; high costs of education, housing and child care; and mounting debts, including public debts associated with environmental degradation.

For nearly 50 years, senators have been studying the poverty problem and recommending a guaranteed livable income as a solution.

A guaranteed livable income is an unconditional transfer of income sufficient to meet basic needs. It could replace social assistance payments — sometimes known as “welfare” — while working alongside other social supports, including health care, pharmacare, pension and education supports. Guaranteed livable income would not obviate the need to carefully regulate such sectors as employment and housing to ensure that human rights are upheld; rather, it would be just one component of a vital social safety net.

By comparison, current social assistance schemes perpetuate and entrench poverty. People receive inadequate resources that, rather than providing a leg up and out of poverty, keep them on the brink of crisis. They are also subject to complex, moralistic and, too often, arbitrary rules. If individuals are able to accumulate some savings, if they receive a loan from a family member or if they decide to train for more stable employment instead of searching for non-existent jobs or work that doesn’t pay a living wage, they can find themselves without any supports.

By contrast, guaranteed livable income is intended to promote stability, to be unconditionally accessible to those in need and to create breathing room to plan a pathway out of poverty, or as former Senator Segal describes, giving people the boots to allow them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

In 1971, following three years of hearing from Canadians living in poverty, the Special Senate Committee on Poverty, chaired by Senator David Croll, reported:

Poverty is the great social issue of our time. . . . The poor do not choose poverty. It is at once their affliction and our national shame. . . . No nation can achieve true greatness if it lacks the courage and determination to undertake the surgery necessary to remove the cancer of poverty from its body politic.

The Croll report called for a guaranteed income as the “first firm step in the war against poverty.” The committee intended this to be an immediate measure because it “felt the poor could not be asked to wait years for the help they so urgently needed.”

For nearly 50 years, this urgent call has gone unanswered. Recognizing that continued inaction is inexcusable, former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and former Liberal Senator Art Eggleton worked to address the human, social and financial costs of poverty detailed in the Croll report. They championed guaranteed livable income in this chamber and beyond.

In 2009, along with our colleagues Senators Cordy, Dyck, Martin and Munson, they released a report of the Senate Social Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on Cities entitled In From the Margins. Focusing on poverty in Canada’s cities, the committee asked:

What does this mean for the millions of Canadians that live with these daily hardships? It means making tough decisions about putting enough food on the table or paying the rent. It means making the decision to stay in school or to drop out to find a job to help the family. It means that by just struggling to get by, these families cannot even dream about getting ahead.

This problem reflects on each and every member of society and our inability or unwillingness to commit to significant changes.

The committee called on the federal government to examine the costs and benefits of a Canadian guaranteed livable income by the end of 2010. In 2017, this chamber passed Senator Eggleton’s motion calling on the government to support provincial, territorial and Indigenous initiatives aimed at evaluating the cost and impact of guaranteed livable income programs.

Next year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Croll report. I hope that by that time we can work together to build on at least 50 years of studies, recommendations and pilots to ensure action for millions of Canadians still waiting for equality.

Honourable senators, the time is right. The government has committed to the implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples by the end of 2020. Article 21 recognizes that “Indigenous peoples have the right, without discrimination, to the improvement of their economic and social conditions . . . .” and requires states to take “. . . effective measures and, where appropriate, special measures to ensure continuing improvement of their economic and social conditions.”

When the Arctic and Aboriginal Peoples Committees met with communities throughout the country, many elders expressed keen interest in the many human support and economic development opportunities and possibilities that guaranteed livable income initiatives could provide.

Canada has also committed to implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, the first of which is eliminating poverty. Guaranteed livable incomes have the potential to achieve this goal, as well as other UN Sustainable Development Goals relating to environmentally sustainable, inclusive and equitable communities and economies. Provincial governments, notably P.E.I. and British Columbia, have expressed interest in guaranteed livable incomes. Last month, the Basic Income Canada Network released a report outlining several routes for delivering immediate, feasible and fully funded guaranteed livable incomes across the country.

I hope that in the coming weeks this inquiry will allow us to explore together potential ways forward from the shortcomings of social assistance programs and the devastating impacts of poverty toward the successes of provincial pilot projects and our two existing varieties of guaranteed livable income: the Canada Child Benefit and the Guaranteed Income Supplement for seniors.

Today, however, I want to emphasize the importance of guaranteed livable income when it comes to the criminal legal system. Right now about 80% of those in prison come from among the approximately 11% of Canadians living below the poverty line. In past decades, as national standards for social assistance, health care and education were eviscerated, women — and particularly Indigenous and other racialized women — became and have remained Canada’s fastest growing prison population.

Imagine trying to live in Toronto on $733 per month: $343 for basic needs and $390 for housing. Ontario’s social assistance program expects individuals to pull off this impossible feat.

Supplementing this income, even by accepting a gift of groceries from one’s family, can result in this already inadequate allowance being clawed back. If people do not report, they can be charged with a criminal offence. We have created a system in which people must choose between going hungry and breaking the law; between being homeless and breaking the law; between clothing their children and breaking the law. We have created a system where poor people are infinitely criminalizable.

Of women in prisons, 80% are there for poverty-related offences. The most common convictions for Indigenous women are theft under $5,000, theft over $5,000, fraud, and trafficking drugs or stolen goods.

The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls demonstrates how poverty contributes to both the victimization and criminalization of Indigenous women. It puts women at greater risk of violence and creates barriers to escaping it. In Canada, two out of five women leaving an abusive partner are immediately rendered homeless.

Data shows that 87% of all women and 91% of Indigenous women in federal prisons have histories of physical or sexual abuse. As the national inquiry has highlighted, marginalized women seeking protection from abuse too often do not receive it. Worse still, if they take steps to protect themselves or their children, they too often end up criminalized and imprisoned.

The Canadian Resource Centre for Victims of Crime recently noted the role poverty plays in criminalization and the importance of addressing poverty as part of the rehabilitative process. Guaranteed livable incomes could do this and provide options for victims that are too often unaffordable for those who need them most, from the ability to take time away from work to resources for counselling. Senators Boisvenu and Moncion have reminded us that victims and jurors alike need such supports.

A guaranteed livable income would do much more than repair the harm done. It could also prevent it.

Honourable senators, millions of our constituents are impoverished and every single Canadian is negatively affected by poverty and inequality. In a human-rights-promoting democratic country as rich as ours, failure to end poverty is shameful. It also costs us between $72 billion and $84 billion per year.

We pay that amount every year in health care fees, legal costs and lost tax revenue directly attributable to poverty.

Imagine for a moment, honourable colleagues, how guaranteed livable income programs could spend that money to prevent human suffering before it happens. Give people a leg up and out of poverty and create more equal, more vibrant, healthier and safer communities. I look to your expertise and ingenuity to tackle what has remained for far too long the greatest social issue of our time. We have 50 years of work to build upon. The time to act is now. Meegwetch. Thank you.