As families hit hard financial times during Covid-19, some NWT residents are advocating for guaranteed basic income as a solution for the territory’s most vulnerable.
For Suzette Montreuil, a member of the social justice coalition Alternatives North, it’s been interesting to watch government responses to Covid-19.
The federal government announced the Canada Emergency Response Benefit for those who are out of work or lost wages due to the pandemic. The NWT government followed with a program that offered emergency payments of $500 to income assistance claimants.
“This Covid crisis [is] where we really saw that people were looking for some income security – and we try to create all of these different programs,” Montreuil said.
“And in the end, you keep looking, ‘Did we think of them? Did we think of them? Did we think of them?’ You spend all this energy trying to figure out who’s left out and who’s not considered.”
Montreuil thinks a guaranteed basic income – or GBI – could give residents security in times of crisis.
Championed by groups like the Basic Income Canada Network, GBI guarantees a certain minimum income for every person or family, no matter their previous income.
The concept has been a source of intense political debate in Canada for decades, stretching back to the 1960s. The most recent GBI frontier was Ontario, where Kathleen Wynne’s Liberal provincial government launched a pilot program in 2018.
That program was shut down shortly after the Conservatives came to power the next year.
Now, conversations about GBI are back in full force as the country’s economy is shattered by the pandemic.
A consistent concern is whether a program like GBI could take away people’s motivation to work. If people have a guaranteed income, will some be more likely to stay at home without contributing to their society in return?
“That’s just not true,” Montreuil suggests, referring to an earlier trial in Manitoba as evidence.
In the 70s, Manitoba launched a social experiment to see how people’s behaviours might change with a guaranteed basic income. The project, known as Mincome, explored how a form of basic income could be used at a provincial or territorial level.
Research into Mincome is complex as the participants knew it was temporary, which makes it hard to establish what would happen if a more permanent program were introduced. Studies have concluded working hours under Mincome dropped one percent for men, three percent for married women, and five percent for unmarried women.
At the same time, marital stability among households receiving Mincome increased slightly.
A 2016 study found Mincome was at the time was viewed much more favourably than the ordinary welfare system as it didn’t stigmatize anyone taking part.
“What it allowed them to do is build up some security and take the stress away of not having income,” Montreuil said.
Simplifying the system?
Last year, newly elected Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson and re-elected Frame Lake MLA Kevin O’Reilly campaigned in favour of trying something similar in the Northwest Territories.
However, employment minister RJ Simpson said the territorial government was not equipped to “take on a project of that magnitude.”
Johnson thinks the pandemic presents an opportunity to reopen that discussion.
“I think we’ve learned that no matter how much government tries to make a program address a gap, it never catches everyone,” he said. “And it misses people who are simply bad at navigating bureaucracy.”
Johnson says he has heard residents say the Canada Emergency Response Benefit simply isn’t enough for northern families, given the local cost of living.
Two months ago, new data for the NWT suggested almost 10,000 residents were already “struggling to make ends meet” while trying to pay for rent, clothing, food, and transportation, without the influence of the pandemic.
Johnson argues a catch-all social program like guaranteed basic income could eliminate the need for northerners to navigate a complex web of income assistance programs, further complicated by new emergency supports.
“We could get rid of a lot of overlapping programs and just give money to the people who need it, who probably know how to spend it,” he said.
Where does the money come from?
Grant Hood, the town administrator for Inuvik, said a guaranteed basic income could be “really helpful” for those in the Beaufort Delta, where moratoria in the oil and gas industry have posed challenges for workers.
He sees basic income as a means of freeing people to work on diversifying the local economy.
“If they have some stability, it allows them to maybe search out some opportunities and other things that they could do, [like expanding] maybe even tourism,” he said, “versus just getting by or hoping to get by.”
Grant Hood, Inuvik’s town administrator, is pictured at the community water treatment plant in June 2019. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
But Hood is not without concerns. He wonders if putting money toward basic income could sap the territorial government’s funds from other services, such as infrastructure.
The territory already, by its the admission of its own research, underfunds municipalities to the tune of millions of dollars.
“For example, the funding shortfall for municipalities,” Hood suggested. “I mean, does GBI affect [the GNWT’s] ability to eliminate that shortfall?”
Both Hood and Johnson said getting to a guaranteed basic income would mean whacking through many logistical weeds. For example, there are competing notions of how much money a guaranteed income would offer and how the GNWT would set aside appropriate funds.
In a written statement to Cabin Radio, employment minister Simpson restated his position that the GNWT is not about to implement such a program.
Montreuil holds out hope that GBI will make its way to the NWT some day.
“[GBI] means everyone is covered,” Montreuil said. “It gives them a decent start and a decent start with dignity.”