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‘Humans are suffering’: Axing of basic income pilot project leaves trail of broken dreams

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The first detailed look at the 6,500 Ontarians who signed up for the basic income pilot project paints a portrait of people living in poverty whose dreams of a better life have been crushed by the Ford government.

Results of the government’s initial survey of participants, obtained by the Star, were compiled early last July, three weeks before the newly elected Progressive Conservatives broke their election promise and killed the initiative.

Jodi Dean, left, is one of about 1,000 Hamilton residents participating in Ontario's basic income pilot project. She is shown with her husband and daughter as part of Humans of Basic Income, a photo exhibit created by photographer Jessie Golem sparked by the Ford government's decision to cancel the initiative last July.
Jodi Dean, left, is one of about 1,000 Hamilton residents participating in Ontario’s basic income pilot project. She is shown with her husband and daughter as part of Humans of Basic Income, a photo exhibit created by photographer Jessie Golem sparked by the Ford government’s decision to cancel the initiative last July.  (JESSIE GOLEM PHOTO)

The move has sparked numerous petitions, charges of unethical treatment of human research subjects and a court challenge to be heard Jan. 28.

According to the baseline survey of participants, most were experiencing stress, struggling to pay rent and having trouble affording healthy food when they signed up.

“Humans are suffering,” said participant Jodi Dean, a Hamilton mother of three. “It shows, clearly, there is a need for help, yet it is ignored. It makes me very sad.”

Dean obtained the survey under a clause in the participation agreement that gave everyone who enrolled in the project access to generalized data, if they request it. The survey is the only research the government conducted before the project was cancelled.

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Under the $150 million, three-year program, about 4,500 participants in Hamilton-Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay have been receiving annual payments of up to $16,989 for individuals and $24,027 for couples, with a $6,000 top-up for people with disabilities. The goal was to see if unconditional financial support would boost employment opportunities, stabilize housing and improve health for people living in poverty.

Another 2,000 people, enrolled as a “control” or comparison group, also completed the baseline survey, but did not receive the basic income.

Payments are scheduled to end March 25, barely 18 months after participants began receiving the extra money.

Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod, who scrapped the scheme July 31, said Ontario can’t afford a basic income because annual costs would top $18 billion if it was extended to all low-income residents.

The preliminary analysis, compiled by an independent evaluation team led by St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, shows just over half those enrolled were working, running a business or looking for a job when they signed up. More than 13 per cent were working two or more jobs but still unable to escape poverty, according to the survey.

Of the 47 per cent not in the labour force, almost two-thirds were ill or disabled, 14 per cent had personal or family responsibilities and 7 per cent were students, the analysis shows.

More than 80 per cent of participants reported moderate to severe psychological stress. And almost 60 per cent ranked their life satisfaction as a five out of 10 or lower, according to the report.

“This survey … reveals the hopes of a courageous group of people who sought to improve their lives by enrolling in the basic income pilot project,” said Tom Cooper of the Hamilton Roundtable on Poverty Reduction.

“All this will be lost if the project is not allowed to continue,” he added.

The roundtable, which is posting Dean’s copy of the analysis on its website Tuesday, has been studying it to dig deeper into the numbers.

Hamilton participant Laura Cattari, 49, who has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain and fatigue, works 10-hours a week at the roundtable.

She says the $6,000 in annual basic income payments she receives has brought her income to the poverty line and allows her to handle household emergencies without having to skimp on groceries or worry about paying her bills.

Laura Cattari, 49, has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain and fatigue. She works 10-hours a week at the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The $6,000 in annual basic income payments she receives has brought her up to the poverty line and allows her to handle household emergencies without having to skimp on groceries.
Laura Cattari, 49, has a developmental disability and uses a wheelchair due to chronic pain and fatigue. She works 10-hours a week at the Hamilton Roundtable for Poverty Reduction. The $6,000 in annual basic income payments she receives has brought her up to the poverty line and allows her to handle household emergencies without having to skimp on groceries.  (SUPPLIED PHOTO)

Cattari, who has been analyzing the government survey as part of her job, says difficulties getting people to sign up for the project mean the snapshot isn’t a demographically accurate reflection of poverty in Ontario. For example, 81 per cent of participants identified as white, 88 per cent are Canadian-born and 99 per cent speak English.

But Cattari says the survey reflects poverty trends, especially when it comes to health care. Almost 38 per cent of participants had unmet health needs and cost was a factor more than 80 per cent of the time, Cattari noted.

“We know people aren’t getting the medical help they need, whether it is prescription drugs, dental care or therapy of any sort,” she said.

For Dean and her husband, who have used the basic income to help cover the cost of gas and hospital parking for her daughter who has a disability and requires frequent medical care, losing the support has been a blow.

“It means we will struggle. It means more stress,” Dean said from Montreal where her daughter is having surgery.

“We had a bit of a break and were able to concentrate on things like our daughter’s health without that worry of paying the bills,” she said. “Now we are back to worrying. Simple things like parking and gas to get to the hospital shouldn’t be a worry or force you to make choices on bills or health.”

The baseline survey provides a glimpse of the challenges participants faced at the beginning of the project. But the Ford government refused to conduct followup interviews to gauge the project’s success, said Sheila Regehr, chair of Basic Income Canada.

“The government cancelled this project without evidence,” said Regehr, whose organization is conducting its own survey.

“Fortunately, basic income participants are sharing stories about how it has truly transformed their lives and could do the same for Canadians across the country,” she said.

The Star and other media organizations have documented how participants have been able to eat healthier food, buy warm clothing, move into stable housing and enrol in college. Humans of Basic Income, a moving photo exhibit by participant Jessie Golem, shows how the basic income was improving the lives of 63 fellow participants.

In addition to the court challenge, mayors of the pilot communities, international researchers, the Hamilton and Thunder Bay Chambers of Commerce, 900 medical professionals and the CEOs of 120 Canadian companies have called on both Queen’s Park and Ottawa to continue the research project the remaining two years.

Laurie Monsebraaten is a Toronto-based reporter covering social justice. Follow her on Twitter: @lmonseb

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‘Business as usual’ for Dorel Industries after terminating go-private deal

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MONTREAL — Dorel Industries Inc. says it will continue to pursue its business strategy going forward after terminating an agreement to go private after discussions with shareholders.

« Moving ahead. Business as usual, » a spokesman for the company said in an email on Monday.

A group led by Cerberus Capital Management had previously agreed to buy outstanding shares of Dorel for $16 apiece, except for shares owned by the family that controls the company’s multiple-voting shares.

But Dorel chief executive Martin Schwartz said the Montreal-based maker of car seats, strollers, bicycles and home furniture pulled the plug on a deal on the eve of Tuesday’s special meeting after reviewing votes from shareholders.

“Independent shareholders have clearly expressed their confidence in Dorel’s future and the greater potential for Dorel as a public entity, » he said in a news release.

Dorel’s board of directors, with Martin Schwartz, Alan Schwartz, Jeffrey Schwartz and Jeff Segel recused, unanimously approved the deal’s termination upon the recommendation of a special committee.

The transaction required approval by two-thirds of the votes cast, and more than 50 per cent of the votes cast by non-family shareholders.

Schwartz said enhancing shareholder value remains a top priority while it stays focused on growing its brands, which include Schwinn and Mongoose bikes, Safety 1st-brand car seats and DHP Furniture.

Dorel said the move to end the go-private deal was mutual, despite the funds’ increased purchase price offer earlier this year.

It said there is no break fee applicable in this case.

Montreal-based investment firm Letko, Brosseau & Associates Inc. and San Diego’s Brandes Investment Partners LP, which together control more than 19 per cent of Dorel’s outstanding class B subordinate shares voiced their opposition to the amended offer, which was increased from the initial Nov. 2 offer of $14.50 per share.

« We believe that several minority shareholders shared our opinion, » said Letko vice-president Stephane Lebrun, during a phone interview.

« We are confident of the long-term potential of the company and we have confidence in the managers in place.”

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Anglais

Pandemic funds helping Montreal businesses build for a better tomorrow

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Many entrepreneurs have had to tap into government loans during the pandemic, at first just to survive, but now some are using the money to better prepare their businesses for the post-COVID future.

One of those businesses is Del Friscos, a popular family restaurant in Dollard-des-Ormeaux that, like many Montreal-area restaurants, has had to adapt from a sit-down establishment to one that takes orders online for takeout or delivery.

“It was hard going from totally in-house seating,” said Del Friscos co-owner Terry Konstas. “We didn’t have an in-house delivery system, which we quickly added. There were so many of our employees that were laid off that wanted to work so we adapted to a delivery system and added platforms like Uber and DoorDash.”

Helping them through the transition were emergency grants and low-interest loans from the federal and provincial governments, some of which are directly administered by PME MTL, a non-profit business-development organization established to assist the island’s small and medium-sized businesses.

Konstas said he had never even heard of PME MTL until a customer told him about them and when he got in touch, he discovered there were many government programs available to help his business get through the downturn and build for the future. “They’ve been very helpful right from day one,” said Konstas.

“We used some of the funds to catch up on our suppliers and our rents, the part that wasn’t covered from the federal side, and we used some of it for our new virtual concepts,” he said, referring to a virtual kitchen model which the restaurant has since adopted.

The virtual kitchen lets them create completely different menu items from the casual American Italian dishes that Del Friscos is known for and market them under different restaurant brand names. Under the Prasinó Soup & Salad banner, they sell healthy Greek options and their Stallone’s Sub Shop brand offers hearty sandwiches, yet the food from both is created in the same Del Friscos kitchen.

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Anglais

Downtown Montreal office, retail vacancies continue to rise

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Some of downtown Montreal’s key economic indicators are heading in the wrong direction.

Office and retail vacancies in the city’s central core continued to climb in the fourth quarter of 2020, according to a quarterly report released Thursday by the Urban Development Institute of Quebec and the Montréal Centre-Ville merchants association. The report, whose first edition was published in October, aims to paint a socio-economic picture of the downtown area.

The survey also found office space available for sublet had increased during the fourth quarter, which may foreshadow even more vacancies when leases expire. On the residential front, condo sales fell as new listings soared — a sign that the downtown area may be losing some of its appeal to homeowners.

“It’s impossible not to be preoccupied by the rapid increase in office vacancies,” Jean-Marc Fournier, the former Quebec politician who now heads the UDI, said Thursday in an interview.

Still, with COVID-19 vaccinations set to accelerate in the coming months, “the economic picture is bound to improve,” he said. “People will start returning downtown. It’s much too early to say the office market is going to disappear.”

Public health measures implemented since the start of the pandemic almost a year ago — such as caps on office capacity — have deprived downtown Montreal of more than 500,000 workers and students. A mere 4,163 university and CEGEP students attended in-person classes in the second quarter, the most recent period for which figures are available. Border closures and travel restrictions have also brought tourism to a standstill, hurting hotels and thousands of local businesses.

Seventy per cent of downtown workers carried out their professional activities at home more than three days a week during the fourth quarter, the report said, citing an online survey of 1,000 Montreal-area residents conducted last month.

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