By Roderick Benns
Although he counts himself lucky not to have experienced poverty firsthand, the Green Party leader of Prince Edward Island, Peter Bevan-Baker, has many friends who haven’t been as fortunate.
When he rose in the P.E.I. Legislature last week and got all-party support for a Basic Income project to be set up on the island, he may have had them in mind when he introduced his motion. The Legislature agreed unanimously to have the province work with the federal government in the hope of running a Basic Income pilot on the island.
Bevan-Baker’s motion had its origins in the island’s May 2015 election. At an all-party leaders’ debate, it was the Green Party leader then, too, who brought up the issue, given it is prominently featured in all Green Party platforms across Canada. What he didn’t expect during that debate was to hear widespread openness toward the idea.
“I discovered, to my delight, that they all thought Basic Income was at least worthwhile exploring. It was a pleasant surprise, this unanimity.”
Bevan-Baker brought it up at least on “a dozen occasions” in the Legislature when opportunities arose. “There were all sorts of possibilities to do so, since Basic Income has the potential to make an impact across all departments,” says the Green Party leader.
He says if a Basic Income were to go into effect, it would have far-reaching ramifications. The obvious one is the virtual elimination of poverty.
“It’s the right thing to do from that standpoint.”
But there are far greater effects it may have to create a thriving society, he notes.
“It would remove the tremendous stress that people feel. It would provide people with enough income to meet their basic needs. It would help with the great mental stresses that people endure.”
Bevan-Baker says there are tremendous collective benefits, and that it’s important to go beyond considering only the economic when measuring. Everything from reduced health care costs, fewer law and order issues, increased civic participation, and better educational attainment are but a few areas of life that should be measured under a Basic Income to see if these improve.
“I believe a pilot project will show that Basic Income is going to improve the collective well-being of our society.
Now, the ball is in the federal government’s court. They would have to work out a partnership with the maritime province in order to make it happen. So far, there’s been no word whether or not federal involvement might happen.
In Ontario, which is embarking on its own Basic Income pilot, Ontario’s Minister Responsible for the Poverty Reduction Strategy, Chris Ballard, told Leaders and Legacies that Jean-Yves Duclos, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development for Canada, “is certainly interested in the pilot, as are my provincial colleagues across Canada.”
When it comes to P.E.I., Bevan-Baker says he met with Family and Human Services Minister Tina Mundy personally many times and he knows she has had discussions with her federal counterparts.
The Green Party leader says this is “an enormous opportunity for the government” for an issue that has widespread momentum across Canada.
“There’s a compelling case for involvement. We don’t even need to use the whole island. We could use smaller pockets, different communities with a rural-urban mix and…it would be a drop in the bucket in federal terms.”
Bevan-Baker says islanders love to refer back to that historically-important week in 1864, when the so-called Charlottetown Conference marked the beginning of discussions to create a united Canada. To this day, P.E.I. is considered the ‘birthplace’ of Canada. They like to draw all sorts of parallels, he says, when there’s a chance for the small province to do something grand.
“But that parallel is well drawn here. It would be lovely symmetry if we were the place to give birth to a Basic Income. We’re less than half of one percent of the national population. We are our own jurisdiction. You can do a really solid pilot project here.”
Bevan-Baker came to Canada at age 23, having grown up in a middle class family from the highlands of Scotland. They didn’t have a lot of material possessions, and he points out that he had “a real sense of the value of things growing up,” which helped to shape him.
Politically, it is that sense of what matters in people’s lives which may have served Bevan-Baker well here — especially if his role in kick-starting a Basic Income project for P.E.I. soon bears fruit.