Guest Opinion

IAN STUCHBERY

I am responding to a letter in The Guardian on Jan. 16 regarding the urgent need for a guaranteed annual income (GAI) as a foundation for social justice for the poor in our country.

It prompted me to tell a story going back to the early 1980s when the government led by Pierre Trudeau suggested the idea of a guaranteed annual income across the country. As a result of this, I was asked by Archbishop Ted Scott, Primate of the Anglican Church, to go on a national committee charged with the task of examining both the desirability and possibility of such a program.

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I would at this point mention that the proposal for such a GAI had already been strongly approved by both my own diocese of Montreal and others across Canada. For several months, we studied the proposal in considerable depth with much help from experts who were cognizant not only of the theory of a GAI but also its economic feasibility. Eventually we got to the point when we had almost completed our work, with the conclusion that it was not only desirable but also practically possible.

To make sure of this, we realized that we needed specific statistical information from the government. Fortunately, one of our members was a senior civil servant in the appropriate department with access to all the relevant material. The trouble was that it was not open to public access. He suggested that we approach the prime minister, who was the only one with the authority to allow us such access. As a result, Ted Scott immediately wrote to Pierre Trudeau, specifically asking that our committee be allowed access to the information we needed to substantiate our report.

About three weeks later, the archbishop burst into one of our meetings with a four-page handwritten letter from the PM. It began with “Dear Ted” and was followed by several pages full of generous appreciation for the work we had done, but absolutely nothing in response to what we had requested. We were shocked and realized that we had been wasting our time. It was also the last mention of the GAI which we heard from the government.

Nearly 30 years later, many of us in the churches and especially a growing number of those living below the poverty line are still waiting for a response from our political leaders of all parties. Handouts and turkeys are not going to solve the problems of poverty in our country, which is only to be overcome by effective action. What is needed across the country remains a guaranteed adequate annual income for all, and taking the demeaning word ‘welfare’ out of the dictionary.

I would also add an additional point on which our committee insisted. It is that such a guaranteed income should not be cut off if a recipient manages to get a job, which may well be even below or minimally above the GAI income. Rather, the GAI should be slowly reduced in proportion to the amount of the earned income. In this way, there would be a real incentive for the person receiving it to get (back) into the workforce and also improve the lives of himself and his or her family.

It would be wonderful if all those who generously contributed to the Christmas turkey drive were to continue to contribute towards wiping poverty out in both our province and nation by encouraging such a government initiative in this area of concern for so many people in our country.

Ian Stuchbery, Albany, is an Anglican priest who served on a national committee set up by the primate of the Anglican Church of Canada in response to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s initiative to set up a guaranteed annual income.