Tempers flared at a Smiths Falls council meeting Jan. 9 as members of the public argued for the right to speak on the topic of the town being part of a provincial study to replace existing social service payments with a guaranteed minimum income.
At a previous meeting on Dec. 19, a majority of council members rejected a proposal to lobby the province to ask for Smiths Falls to be included in a multi-year pilot study to assess the potential benefits of introducing a single basic guaranteed income to replace the current patchwork of benefits paid to disabled and low-income Ontario residents.
At the Jan. 9 meeting of council’s Committee of the Whole, a crowd of onlookers jammed the council chambers while Dr. Paula Stewart and Elaine Murkin of the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit delivered a presentation on the potential to improve public health by introducing a guaranteed income.
“It’s worth looking at a new way of doing things, because the present system has its problems,” said Stewart, who explained that she became involved in the debate after a group of physicians circulated a petition in support of the proposal.
“I care about this because my oldest daughter has a physical disability,” Stewart added.
Following the presentation by Stewart and Murkin, local resident Darlene Kantor, who said she relies on disability benefits, attempted to speak but was cut off by the chair. Other members of the gallery also spoke out in an effort to voice their disappointment with councillors’ opposition to the pilot project, but were told by the chair, Councillor Jay Brennan, that delegations are limited to 10 minutes and must register with the clerk’s office in advance to be allowed to address council’s Committee of the Whole.
“I really believe this would help Smiths Falls,” Kantor said following the meeting.
The Health Unit is hosting a public consultation at the Smiths Falls Memorial Community Centre at 7 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 12 to gather input into the proposed income pilot project. Both councillors and members of the public were advised by Stewart and Merkin to make their questions and concerns known by attending the meeting.
Merkin told councillors in her presentation that social factors influence health. Fifty per cent of health is impacted by factors such as income, housing, employment and working conditions, she said. “The richest men live five years longer than the poorest. People with low incomes face unequal access to housing, transportation, good nutrition, and dental care, and experience low self-esteem and high stress, Merkin added.
In a report issued at the request of the province in November, former senator Hugh Segal outlined the concept of the basic income guarantee pilot project. The proposal is to establish income floor for every resident, said Merkin, because “current minimum wage rates and social assistance programs are insufficient.”
A similar project conducted in Dauphin, MB in the 1970s showed that all but two groups who received a guaranteed minimum income actually worked more, with the exception of mothers with new babies, who were able to stay at home with them, and teenagers, who were able to stay in school.
Other universal poverty reduction programs, such as Old Age Security, have had a positive impact, said Merkin.
Following the presentation, Councillor Lorraine Allen and Mayor Shawn Pankow voiced their support for the pilot project, as did student councillors Ben Seward and Jordan Drummond.
Councillor John Maloney voiced a number a questions he said had come up in his discussions with people receiving disability benefits who were afraid of losing out if some of the support they currently receive (such as payment for drugs) was replaced by a single payment.
Councillor Dawn Quinn, who spoke against at the proposal at the Dec. 19 meeting, said, “I have been criticized greatly because I have spoken out,” but reiterated her position that the proposal would not work. “Let’s not put money into a broken system,” she said. “Let’s build a new one.”
Quinn said Canada was built by immigrants who came to the country with nothing, built a new life, and never had anything given to them. This statement drew an angry response from one audience member, who replied later that the country had been built “on genocide.”
Photo by Chris Must: Dr. Paula Stewart of the Leeds, Grenville and Lanark District Health Unit addresses Smiths Falls town councillors Jan. 9 on the topic of the potential health benefits of a guaranteed minimum income for Ontario.