Ottawa man says basic income could make world of difference

By Roderick Benns

Publisher of Leaders and Legacies, a social purpose news site


From the time he was a toddler, John Dunn was bounced around 13 times from one Ontario foster home to the next until he turned 18. He was originally taken into care due to complications from his mother’s severe — and often suicidal — bi-polar disorder and alcoholism, and was separated from his three siblings in the process.

There was often abuse, and he knows the experiences left an imprint on the shape of his life.

“I think I began to develop a constant mourning…of friends, family, and pretty well anything I began to become familiar with,” Dunn, now 44, tells Leaders and Legacies.


His foster home experiences “had devastating effects on how I saw myself, my confidence, and how I deal with people and authority figures.”

He didn’t really appreciate what he had gone through until he finally had an emotional breakdown at the age of 32. He began to seek therapy to try and figure out what was wrong, “and why I could never hold a job more than a few months at a time without quitting or getting fired for making mistakes, forgetting things, getting overly frustrated, and hating himself for it.”

He was soon diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, having memory issues, and ADHD.

When he left foster care at age 18, Dunn thought he was free. He didn’t realize that what he considered freedom would simply become a web of precarious work and poverty traps that he has spent a lifetime trying to free himself from. He soon realized, instead, that he had no support at all to help him transition into a life.

“I was alone, and very, very broken.”

Life on Social Assistance

Dunn thought about going to university but felt intimidated by even walking into the building, “let alone figuring out where I was ever going to get the money to pay for it.” He says he didn’t know about school loans back then and just figured he couldn’t go because he didn’t have any family to help.

The Ottawa man admits he has had a checkered employment past due to his life experiences. He has done everything from factory work, to video editing, to working as a messenger. He even worked a year at CBC as a tech support. However, he doesn’t consider himself to have any particular area of expertise, “since, like my childhood, I never seemed to be able to stay anywhere for any length of time.”

For the last year, he has been living on social assistance in Ottawa, the city he has called home for more than a decade. It isn’t enough to live on, says Dunn, and he points out that he doesn’t smoke and has never gotten into drugs. He also gave up drinking nearly two years ago.

The Ottawa man says he gets approximately $625 a month in total through social assistance. His monthly budget is as follows:

  • Rent: $400 for a basement room

  • Bus Pass: $100

  • Groceries: $60

  • Phone: $40

  • Entertainment: $25 (coffee shops, etc.)

    “Right now, I typically run out of groceries by mid-month,” Dunn says. When he gets too hungry, he knows he will have to start “the degrading process of asking others for food or a couple of dollars here and there.”

    E-book initiative

    To try and earn a little more money and to be of service to others, Dunn has been writing a ‘For Regular People’ series of e-books. The first book is ‘Reading and Understanding Canadian Legislation’ and it walks the reader through the basics of how to read legislation by describing its basic elements.

    The second book in the series he is currently writing is ‘Advocacy and Change Using Canadian Legislation’ which will document actual examples of advocacy which have already been done to help people in various situations based on, or while using, legislation as their core guides.

    Dunn, who is motivated to write these based on his own experiences with the system, also created a documentary for CBC Radio in 2002 called “Too Many Stops,” in which he takes the listener on a virtual subway ride through life in foster care.

    Life with a Basic Income Guarantee instead of welfare

    A basic income guarantee – a policy that would ensure no person in Canada would ever fall below a set, annual income threshold — is currently being considered by policy makers and in jurisdictions across Canada. This includes the government of Prince Edward Island, the federal Liberal Party and Green Party, the mayors of Edmonton and Calgary, and high profile senators, among others.

    While there are many types of basic income, many feel that a guaranteed annual income of $18,000 to $20,000 for individuals would be the threshold to keep people out of poverty.

    When asked how a basic income guarantee from the government set at $1500 per month would change his life, Dunn was overwhelmed at the thought of this level of support.

    “It would be a miracle in many ways. Not just financially, but emotionally and mentally,” he says.

    “I could also actually do some of the things many people take for granted, like maybe go out to a movie…or buy a coffee for a friend for once instead of always being the one who is treated.”

    Dunn says he would get some healthier food for his cat, who has been a friend and companion for 10 years. Then, thinking about himself, he adds “I could even get healthy food, too, instead of always the cheapest of the cheap which is not always” the best for people.

    Dunn says if he had to sum it up in a word, he says a basic income would give him a feeling of “dignity.”

    When asked how a basic income would change his day-to-day thinking, knowing it would prevent him from slipping into poverty, Dunn was enthusiastic about what that would mean. “If I lose my work…because of accidents, or my own mistakes, or, in the case of abusive managers…and my post-traumatic reactions to them, I would not have to go into panic mode,” he says.

    He says it isn’t a good feeling to think he is going to lose his basement room that he rents, or risk losing his pet cat.

    “I would not have to go into the extreme stress I go into repeatedly when looking for work in a full-time mode all day long every day, getting rejection after rejection.”

    Since the entire welfare bureaucracy would be eliminated under almost any basic income guarantee model, Dunn notes he would no longer have to spend his time applying for welfare, “tying up their staff who are already overworked and have no time to deal effectively with all the clients they must process every day.”

    “I would be able to just keep my ears open for the right job at the right time as I find them, in a much more relaxed and natural way.”

    When asked what he might have done after leaving the foster care system at the age of 18, if a basic income guarantee had already been in place in Canada, Dunn says he definitely would have opened up a savings account to start.

    “I may have seen a future in education. I may have decided to go to college or university because having some money allows for that type of thinking.”

    ​Once he put away some money, he figures he likely could have gotten a car.

    “Which could also open up driving jobs, or other jobs which I might be able to do but are not within the reach of public transit,” he explains.

    Dunn says he would simply have had “more dignity and self-worth,” if a basic income guarantee was there for him when he transitioned into adulthood.

    Everything always seemed as if it were for someone else, he says.

    “So I never tried — and I never had anyone to support me or to give me pep talks. If only we could go back. Maybe I would have been a lawyer, a stock broker, a pilot, a financial advisor, a writer, a documentary producer — a person with dreams…and a means to accomplish those dreams.”

    “At the least, it would have been the possibility to strive toward any one of these passions.”