Participants in Ontario’s basic income experiment are scrambling after an Ontario Superior Court ruling upheld a provincial government decision to kill the program.

The court could not compel the Ontario government to continue paying for the pilot that was due to last another two years, a three-judge panel ruled Thursday.

“This is because courts have no power to review the policy considerations which motivate cabinet decisions,” the judgment read. The lawsuit sought to quash the cancellation and let it run its full three-year course.

The federal government will not pick up the tab to keep the program going, as proposed by the federal New Democratic Party, a spokesperson said Friday.

“I’m having a bit of anxiety. It’s not hitting me, after reading through all the paperwork — it finally sunk in that, wow, next month I’m going to be back on [disability],” said Tracey Mechefske, one of the four plaintiffs who brought the case to court. Her final basic income cheque will arrive at the end of March.

The three-year, $150-million pilot was introduced in 2017 by the then Liberal government as an experiment to reduce such side effects of poverty as precarious housing, poor physical and mental health, and food insecurity. It ensures a minimum income level, regardless of whether the recipient is employed or not. In the pilot, 35 per cent of people worked; most people who didn’t had a disability.

Beginning in 2018, about 4,000 residents of Thunder Bay, Hamilton and Lindsay received monthly cheques that amounted to $16,989 a year for singles, while couples got $24,027. People with disabilities received an additional $6,000 a year. The program received international praise.

But the Progressive Conservative government of Doug Ford cancelled basic income one month after taking office. It claimed the program didn’t work, although no measure of its success had been taken since the pilot’s initial baseline survey.

No help from the federal government

Thursday’s judgment isn’t the end of the road, says lawyer Mike Perry. In an email, he said he intends to pursue the Ontario government in a class action lawsuit for “damages incurred by the participants resulting from the government’s decision to cancel the basic income pilot.” Perry is a non-practicing lawyer from Lindsay who took on the case pro bono.

Killing the basic income pilot program is a "wasted opportunity," says @MPJulian #OnPoli #Canpoli

The result of a class action could take years to materialize. In the meantime, basic-income recipients are now scrambling to reapply for benefits from the Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) and Ontario Works (OW), the province’s social-assistance program.

To participate in the pilot, basic income recipients had to give up their disability or social assistance payments. Since reapplying to those programs would immediately cancel their basic income, many participants were waiting on the judgment to know their next steps.

New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh had previously called on the federal government to step in and fund the pilot.

But the federal government won’t be doing that, Amélie Maisonneuve said in an email Friday. She is a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada.

“Decisions around the design of provincial social assistance programs — including the testing of potential new approaches to these benefits — are under the jurisdiction of provincial governments,” she wrote.

Maisonneuve also said the federal government has offered to share available data with provinces looking to establish basic income pilots or programs. “We will monitor this work and look forward to reviewing any conclusions or results,” she added.

A wasted opportunity, says NDP

Peter Julian, the federal NDP finance critic, said that killing the pilot is a wasted opportunity to understand how basic income — which is gaining traction internationally as a way to reduce poverty — could’ve helped Canadians in the future.

“Because the window closes. You shut down the pilot project in Ontario, then we don’t have the ability, the strong foundation, to work to basic income. At this point, what that would mean is just further pilot projects down the road,” Julian said in an interview with National Observer.

He pointed to a recent poll that said nearly half of Canadians are $200 away from being broke, and the fact that Canadians are struggling with record debt. “Over the last few decades, we’ve seen federal governments that have ripped apart the social safety net. With the changes in the labour force as well, it’s just become a perfect storm for so many Canadian families,” Julian added.

Many of Ontario’s basic income pilot participants said they used the money to get ahead in life. They moved into better apartments, bought new furniture, ate fresher food, accessed better health care and even saved a little cash.

Mechefske and her husband, who is employed, had qualified for basic income as a couple. The body products business she started with her basic-income money is now in jeopardy — and so is her home.

“In the year and a bit that I’ve been on basic income, Hydro has increased, heat has increased, water and sewer has increased, my taxes have increased. I’m actually not sure — especially with the government cuts now to ODSP and OW — what will happen with being able to keep my house,” said Mechefske.

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