There was a thick overlay of snow on the ground the day 7-year-old Sebastian Borjas and his family landed in Canada in 2005, tired from their long journey from Honduras. The previous night’s spring snowstorm was perhaps a harbinger of the challenges that were to come.
They came for a better life, the dream of most every immigrant family to Canada. In Honduras they had grown weary of the political instability, kindled by intrusive American foreign policy, with a backdrop of gang violence.
In Canada they found peace from those concerns. But as his family struggled with the realities of their unfamiliar landscapes, both physical and social, he reflects that in Honduras – despite the unrest — they led what would have been considered upper class lives there.
In their new home in Mississauga, though, the Borjas family soon settled in to a lower middle class routine that they’ve never quite escaped from.
“As the years passed, there was a drain on our money supply” and there was difficulty finding work, Borjas says. He believes it was this harsh reality of culture clash that triggered his parents’ divorce.
Borjas, now 20, is a business student at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario and an advocate for basic income and other social policies that will enhance the well-being of others.
He has also kept busy volunteering at Eden Community Food Bank, the Bread and Honey Festival, Hamilton’s Immigrant Worker Centre, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Hamilton’s Children Outreach Program for Learning, and other places.
He is happy that Hamilton was one of three centres in Ontario that was given a basic income pilot. The plan is to invite a mix of people into the program, such as those who are working but not working enough to stay out of poverty, those who are currently on social assistance, and homeless people.
The basic income model Ontario has developed will ensure that eligible participants receive:
- Up to $16,989 per year for a single person, less 50 percent of any earned income
- Up to $24,027 per year for a couple, less 50 percent of any earned income
- Up to an additional $6,000 per year for a person with a disability.
Canada is prosperous, says Borjas, and this should be passed on to its citizens.
Borjas says Hamilton has undergone tough times with many declining industries, particularly the steel industry that it was once famous for.
“There is a large population of young and old people…streets need maintenance, people need help with housing, jobs, education, and bringing…life back to Hamilton,” he says.
The McMaster student sees great potential in his adopted city. From the landscapes and nature to culture and nightlife, he says Hamilton “has its own unique vibe.”
He believes a great addition to the city would be a light rail transit system connecting it to the Greater Toronto Area.
Borjas faced many difficulties growing up in Canada. As the years went by he noticed how his family “adjusted to lower living conditions” with each passing year after they arrived, from limiting their food choices, to using public laundry mats and public transportation as a result of low income.
He is happy to learn about the basic income pilot in Hamilton this year, along with Ontario’s tuition grants for lower income families, and the recent announcement of a $15 minimum wage.
For Borjas, as someone who is of a lower income right now, he thinks it would be great not to worry about living “day to day,” so he can focus on his academic performance, health, and his future.
He has pressure with school work, extra curricular activities, community events, and family issues to deal with, including aging parents.
“I know they currently have no savings, making them vulnerable to worse conditions and insecurity for the future,” he says.
“Basic income could help relieve some of this weight. I would definitely continue working hard and ensuring my security,” Borjas says, even if he were receiving a basic income.
He says he worries often about “how I am going to be able to have kids, visit my family, maintain a home, and also for retirement.”
Despite the challenges, Borjas says he feels privileged to be in Hamilton, and in Canada in general.
“Still, I feel very lucky to be here and I am happy to help how I can.”
-- This story originally ran in the Precarious Work Chronicle here.