Nunavut MLA wants the territory to pilot guaranteed basic income

A Nunavut politician says guaranteed basic income could help some Nunavummiut escape poverty and join the labour force.

Arviat North-Whale Cove MLA John Main says the idea — recommended in a 2013 report commissioned by Nunavut’s Anti-Poverty Secretariat — should be researched and piloted.  

“If we don’t research and actually try it out … we’ll never know, it’ll just be an idea on the shelf,” he said.  

Guaranteed basic income is a model aimed at replacing income assistance, which ensures people have sufficient income to live on, regardless of their work status.

A couple of Scandinavian countries as well as Brazil and Alaska have tried out different versions of this model, Main said. And it’s been tested in pilot projects in Canada since the 1970s, including a recent one in Ontario that was about halfway through its three-year plan when it was cancelled by Premier Doug Ford’s provincial Progressive Conservative Party.

No plans to implement alternatives, minister says

In Nunavut, the idea has received mixed messaging. 

“The Department [of Family Services] does not have any plans to implement alternatives to income assistance at this time,” Family Services Minister Elaine Sheutiapik wrote in a response to questions from Main. 

But during committee of the whole on March 4, Sheutiapik did not rule the idea of basic guaranteed income out. 

“I’m trying to get a better understanding of what the pros and cons [are] … and will continue to educate myself and hopefully have discussions with like minds like yourself,” she told Main. 

Minister highlights changes to income assistance

In her written responses, Sheutiapik also outlined the reforms that have been made to Nunavut’s income assistance program.

Those include allowing recipients to have some savings, increasing funds to unmarried recipients and those with disabilities, and increasing incentives to earn income in addition to the assistance. 

Main acknowledged the reforms have been necessary and positive. But he said some of his constituents say the program still makes them dependent on income assistance because it disincentivizes participation in the labour force. 

“The effects that income assistance has on people’s behaviour led me to look deeper into what alternatives are out there,” Main said. 

When there’s a political will and you have support from the public, there’s not a lot that can really stop a project moving forward.– John Main, Nunavut MLA

“The big appeal of the basic income concept … is removing a disincentive to work and possibly finding a way for us to tackle this huge unemployment we have in Nunavut.” 

Main said it won’t be a simple project to tackle and attempts around the world have had mixed results, but he said Nunavut is an unconventional place and an unconventional idea might just work in the territory.

Main pointed to a model in Brazil, where guaranteed income requires parents to send their children to school. In Alaska, oil and gas revenue is used for something similar, he added. 

“When there’s a political will and you have support from the public, there’s not a lot that can really stop a project moving forward,” he said. “And once the project is in place … we can learn from it and see if it worked, or where to go from there.”

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