BICN Chair says recent basic income congress was better than ever

By Roderick Benns

After attending Basic Income congresses both nationally and internationally for about a decade now, the chair of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN) says the latest Winnipeg, Manitoba congress beats them all in at least one area – the diversity of people attending.

“In the 10 years I’ve been going I’ve never seen anything like this one,” says Sheila Regehr of the recent North American Congress, where about 150 people attended to talk about Basic Income.

“In its diversity it was absolutely amazing. We had the voices of indigenous people included, health professionals, legal scholars, public servants, professionals representing racialized populations, faith-based perspectives, and people from the LGBTQ community,” she says.

The BICN chair says even the gender dynamics were better balanced, compared to earlier congresses where male voices tended to predominate. All of this points to one irrefutable fact, she says, and that’s “that the Basic Income movement is growing.”

“It’s really exciting where this is going – we’re having intelligent and informed conversations and that’s a great sign,” she adds.

A basic income guarantee ensures everyone an income that is sufficient to meet their basic needs, regardless of work status. The type most talked about in Canada is a negative income tax model, where it would be universally available to everyone during periods of financial need.

Regehr was particularly struck by the depth of the indigenous dialogues that occurred, as participants debated how a basic income would fit not only into their ways of life, but also how it could fit through the different legalities governing people living on on reserves.

The BICN chair says that even among activists who attended, there were those who came from privileged backgrounds wanting to make a difference for society and activists living in low income situations who had a personal stake in where the policy thinking was headed.

Powerful Moment for the idea of Basic Income

One of the most powerful moments for the idea of a Basic Income Guarantee came from the Winnipeg Harvest presenters. Winnipeg Harvest is a non-profit, community based organization that is a food distribution and training centre. The organization collects and share surplus food with people. Its ultimate goal is to eliminate the need for food banks in our community.

The presenters spoke about a man who had been homeless and who developed mental health issues. Navigating the welfare bureaucracy system had not been an easy experience for him in his late 50s, says Regehr, but something wonderful happened when he turned 65 – he started receiving the Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS) from the government, since he was now an official senior.

“It allowed him some dignity,” says Regehr. “It was something he was entitled to, and was therefore without shame, unlike the welfare system. He became housed – it literally changed his life.”

Another presenter, Jenna Van Draanen, analyzed social media statistics around issues like basic income. She noted that the ‘basic income’ terminology is capturing attention with increasing strength and that the vast majority of that online dialogue is supportive of the idea.

However, Regehr says Van Draanen rightly pointed out that just shows we need even more healthy debate.

“We can’t just have cheerleaders talking to cheerleaders,” says Regehr, “because understanding varied perspectives and challenges helps design better policy.”

Basic income continues to dominate recent social policy thinking. In its recent budget the Government of Ontario has pledged to “work with communities, researchers and other stakeholders in 2016 to determine how best to design and implement a basic income pilot.”

In Quebec, François Blais, the minister of employment and social solidarity, has been asked by Premier Philippe Couillard to figure out how the province might turn their existing income support tools in the direction of a basic income guarantee.

At the federal level, Jean-Yves Duclos, federal minister of families, children and social development, has stated that a minimum income is a policy worthy of conversation, opening the door to probable federal involvement.