1.7 million Canadians are forced to rely on welfare, including 500,000
Dateline: Monday, September 11, 2021
by Senator Hugh Segal
Canada's on-again, off-again relationship with a guaranteed annual
income (GAI) has made the rounds for many years. The most renowned
recommendation for the GAI came out of the 1985 report of the Royal
Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada,
chaired by Donald Macdonald, known as the Macdonald Commission.
The report stated
unequivocally that a universal income security program is "the essential building block" for
social security programs in the 21st century. A guaranteed annual
income or basic income is
the concept of a floor income provided on a continual basis varying
on family size, age, and other sources of income.
Poverty is rarely, if ever, a choice.
Now, more than 20 years since Macdonald's recommendation, the newly
released report by the National Council of Welfare paints a scathing
picture of the assistance programs currently available in Canada
to our neediest Canadians. It concludes that those on welfare were
actually worse off in 2005 than they have been since the late 1980s
when the council began tracking the numbers. According to the report,
1.7 million of our fellow Canadians are forced to rely on welfare;
more than 500,000 of these people are children.
The first official proposal for a GAI in Canada was made in 1971,
by the Castonguay-Nepveu Commission in Quebec, which proposed a three-tiered
income security program for Quebec. Later that year, the Special Senate
Committee on Poverty proposed a uniform guaranteed income to cover
Canadian families living in need.
In 1973, the federal government published its Working Paper on Social
Security in Canada. This became the basis for the social security review
of the 1970s, and eliminating poverty and providing an acceptable minimum
income for all Canadians was a substantial part of the review.
In the 1980s many policy documents appeared in support of fundamental
reform: the 1984 Quebec White Paper on the Personal Tax and Transfer
Systems, the 1985 Macdonald royal commission, the 1986 Newfoundland
Royal Commission on Employment and Unemployment, the 1987 Forget Commission
on Unemployment Insurance, and the 1988 Ontario Social Assistance Review
Committee, along with numerous other reports from private and social
For more than 30 years, I have been a relatively lonely Conservative
proponent for a guaranteed annual income, or a basic income floor.
I do not believe that, in a country such as Canada, fellow citizens
must live so far below what we consider a poverty line that they are
unable to provide the basic necessities of shelter, food and clothing
for themselves and their children. And based on the current allowances
provided by the welfare system, I also refuse to accept that people
purposely choose to avoid employment in order to subsist on such a
Individuals who turn to welfare do so as a last recourse. Whether
the situation is the result of abuse, job loss, lack of education or
training, addiction or single-parent households, our duty as Canadians
and human beings is to guarantee an income that allows people to provide
for themselves and their families while affording them a level of dignity
that boosts confidence and inspires hope.
Detractors of a guaranteed annual income will invariably point to
its price tag. However, the municipal, provincial and federal governments
are currently footing the rather hefty price tag of poverty as it translates
into health care costs, an overburdened judicial system, a myriad of
social services that often duplicate each other and the basic loss
of human productivity.
And then there is the prevailing, subjective assessment of the welfare
recipient. As the Council on Welfare report points out, the stigma
attached to, and the perception of, those on welfare has in some measure
inured us to the harsh realities of their plight. From a patronizing
perch some have taken permission to ignore the human toll taken by
poverty. In our rush to judgment, we paint all welfare recipients with
the same brush to smugly justify our inaction.
Surely the time has finally come to seriously consider a guaranteed
income, financed by the money now in innumerable other programs. It
is time to simply recognize that to be a Canadian should mean to be
free of the fear that inadequate food, shelter, clothing, recreation
and basic necessities of life cannot but impart.
Poverty is rarely, if ever, a choice. Tolerating its worst consequences
in a society awash in surpluses federally, provincially and in the
private sector is an abomination.
Senator Hugh Segal is a Conservative member of the Standing Senate
Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, whose study on rural poverty
begins this fall. He first came forward as a proponent of a guaranteed
or basic income at the 1969 Tory Thinkers Conference in Niagara Falls,
when he was 19 years old.
Former Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister of Canada and Associate
Secretary of the Ontario Cabinet, Hugh Segal is one of Canada's better-known
public policy experts. Since 1999, Hugh Segal has been President of
the Institute for Research on Public Policy of Canada and has taught
at Queen's University Schools of Policy Studies and Business since
1993. Hugh Segal currently resides in Kingston with wife, Donna, and
their daughter, Jacqueline. He will be sitting in the Senate as a member
of the Conservative Party of Canada.