How would you feel if you could make due with the money you receive every pay check and not have to worry whether you can put food on the table?
At a recent community consultation for Ontario’s apparently soon-to-be-implemented basic income (BI) pilot project, many community members shared their hopes for a fairer distribution of wealth in Canada. However, redistributing wealth cannot create justice if we are not also interrogating the structures that created unequal concentrations of wealth.
The night was set up as a gallery walk. In each room, there were sheets of chart paper with questions written at the top and space underneath for folks to write their responses.
Basic income seems simple: a guaranteed cash transfer granted universally and unconditionally to ensure, at a minimum, that no adult or child lives in poverty. Over the course of the evening, roughly 40 people talked through basic questions like: “Why is BI important?” and more practical ones like: “Who should be included in the pilot?”
In a recent article about BI, the Toronto-based anti-poverty activist John Clarke raised other questions and concerns, including that the consultation process itself is a way to delay, instead of addressing the actual issues at hand. Conveniently, this strategy also makes it look like the government is truly addressing poverty at a systemic level.
Clarke also pointed out that we don’t need a study to know what happens when you give some very poor people a bit more money: they will become a bit less poor and a bit better off.
In any case, a popular topic at the consultation concerned how BI would be funded. Many wrote ideas such as: tax reform, deductions from those who have the most wealth, out of country tax havens and large estate taxes.
In other words, people are saying that they want distributive justice, or the fair allocation of resources among diverse members of a community. These are more radical demands than BI or higher minimum wages, which help the poorest people get by, because they address the very fundamental state that our society is in during this crinkle in history.
Of course, their practical implementation is more complicated and it (should at least) go without saying that every discussion of BI should include the marginalized groups affected by income inequality, particularly the folks indigenous to this land. Indeed, some folks pushed this question further during the course of the night, asking how we could enact distributive justice on stolen land?
The MC of the night (and executive director of the Social Development Centre Waterloo Region) Trudy Beaulne started the evening by acknowledging the traditional territories of the Neutral, Haundenosaunee and Anishnawbe peoples. What is now known as Kitchener Waterloo is located on the Haldimand Tract, which, on Oct. 25, 1784, after the American Revolutionary War of Independence, was given to the Six Nations of the Grand River by the British, as compensation for their role in the war and for the loss of their traditional lands in Upstate New York. Of the 950,000 acres given to the Haudenosaunee (six miles on either side of the entire length of the Grand River) only 46,000 acres remains Six Nations land.
As the work of so many water protectors makes clear, Canada (and the US) is still dependent on the land taken from Indigenous nations, land that those nations often still contest. Settler colonialism is about the need to secure those lands at all costs, which means refusing to acknowledge or working to extinguish Indigenous title to those lands.
This is one of the trials and tribulations of living and organizing for justice in a settler colonial state. The educator and writer Luam Kidane writes that, “as architects of discourse and builders of movements, it is imperative that we shift our political paradigms and begin to act on alternatives that can provide for our material needs.”
So long as projects like BI take for granted settler colonialism, they cannot be tools for social justice. Those of us who are most marginalized by society should and will determine what the movements for change will consist of. We must shift away from what we know all too comfortably and listen to alternatives that have been proposed.
So how do we move forward? The history of social movements is clear: we need to build coalitions for deeper distributive transformations if we want to make our societies more just. It’s easy to get caught up in the abstract ideas that we brainstorm onto paper. We cannot build a solid structure on rotten foundations.
So yes, the BI pilot project could mean growth in a lot of ways. But if we forget or ignore that the structures were built by and to accommodate those in power, then we risk continuously replicating the injustices that surround us in our everyday lives. But how do build deeper coalitions that could challenge the racist-colonial nation state we call Canada? That is hard and necessary work, with or without a basic income.
The province will host a community consultation on Jan. 13, at Kitchener’s City Hall.