The Ford government acted irrationally and in bad faith when it pulled the plug on the basic income pilot project last summer, say four Lindsay-area participants who are urging Ontario Superior Court to overturn the decision.
“Low-income Ontarians have suffered significant harm owing to the (government’s) abrupt decision to cancel the pilot early,” the participants’ lawyer Mike Perry argues in court documents in the case to be heard Monday.
“Individuals who choose to become research subjects ought never to be viewed simply as experimental raw material by their government,” Perry says in the plaintiffs’ factum.
The three-judge panel is expected to reserve judgment at the close of Monday’s daylong hearing in Toronto.
In its defence, the government says its policy decision to end the anti-poverty experiment is not subject to judicial review.
“The social policy direction changed, and participants were advised, many months ago,” the government argues in its factum.
“Furthermore, continuation of the pilot would serve no valid government policy purpose since the government has determined that the pilot will not be implemented across Ontario.”
Under the three-year initiative launched by the previous Liberal government in April 2017, about 4,000 people in the test communities of Hamilton-Brantford, Thunder Bay and Lindsay were to receive up to $16,989 annually.
Couples were to get up to $24,027 while individuals with disabilities were eligible for a $6,000 top-up.
The goal was to see if regular payments with no strings attached would give people living in poverty the security and opportunity to reach their full potential.
The project was also testing whether a basic income would be a simpler and more economic way to deliver social assistance, a program mired in rules and bureaucracy.
Despite an election promise to continue the initiative, Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives cancelled it last July, barely a year after it began.
At the time, Social Services Minister Lisa MacLeod said basic income was too expensive for Ontario and the new government preferred a more employment-focused approach.
As part of the government’s “wind down” plan, participants were told last August their payments would end on March 25. Those who are eligible, will be moved back onto social assistance.
Applicants in the case, Dana Bowman, Grace Hillion, Susan Lindsay and Tracey Mechefske, say they are “devastated” by the government’s flip-flop and are keen to challenge the decision in court.
“I am a huge believer in justice,” Hillion said in an interview.
“When (lawyer) Mike (Perry) asked if I wanted to be part of this, I jumped at the chance.”
Hillion, 20, who was on the verge of dropping out of college when she was accepted into the pilot project last April, used the money to enrol in a two-year broadcast journalism program at Durham College to pursue her “dream job.”
Her parents, who are divorced, were not able to help her financially and she was not eligible for Ontario student loans or grants because she didn’t complete her previous program.
“Without the basic income, I wouldn’t have been able to afford to go to school,” she said.
“I am applying for OSAP again,” said Hillion, who has a part-time retail job. “But I’m not sure what will happen. If I can’t continue my program, I will be very sad.”
Bowman, 57, who was living on Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) payments due to chronic physical and mental health challenges when she enrolled last winter, used the basic income to rekindle her dream of returning to college and pursuing a career in social work.
“Going to school meant giving up my prescription drug coverage on ODSP,” she said in an interview. “But on the basic income we were able to keep our coverage and that made all the difference.”
Bowman said she was “gutted” when the program was cancelled. “My mental health problems flared up, it was devastating. Now college isn’t an option.”
Health problems related to a car accident in 2017 forced Lindsay, 54, out of work and into a life of poverty on social assistance. The basic income gave her the financial cushion she needed to think about how she might work again.
The project’s end has had a “horrible” impact on Lindsay’s mental health, Perry says in his factum. “She reports feeling uncertain, thinking about it every day, and being fearful of returning to having to rob Peter to pay Paul.”
“We all have to battle together and just hope we win,” Lindsay said in an interview.
Mechefske, 46, was also living on ODSP due to health problems when she enrolled. She used the money to start a small business making all-natural personal health and cleaning products and bought tables at craft shows to market her goods.
But without the basic income, Mechefske says she will lose her business because she can’t afford the ingredients to make her products.
“Now all the money invested in shows is gone,” she said in an interview.
The project’s demise has made her anxiety disorder much worse, she adds.
Perry, who is acting pro bono and relying on individual donations and a GoFundMe campaign to cover administrative costs of the case, praised the quartet for representing all basic income participants who feel betrayed by the Ford government.
“They are brave Davids to take on this Goliath,” he said in an interview.
But they won’t be alone. Anti-poverty advocates are organizing car pools and Go Train fare to bring several dozen other participants from Lindsay, Hamilton and even Thunder Bay to Toronto for the hearing.
Perry’s separate class-action lawsuit against the government for breach of contract on behalf of the same Lindsay residents is on hold pending results of the judicial review.
In his factum for Monday’s case, Perry says it is irrational and “inherently speculative” for the government to claim it would cost $17 billion and result in an HST of 20 per cent to extend the basic income to all low-income Ontarians.
The project was abandoned before researchers could evaluate potential cost-savings to health care and other government programs, he says. Even then, there was no guarantee the basic income would be implemented province-wide at the end of the study, he adds in his court filings.
As a result, the decision “lacked any standard of reason or good sense,” he argues.
Canadian policy requires all social experiments involving humans to be overseen by an independent research ethics board, Perry notes.
When the government signed a research protocol with Montreal-based Veritas IRB, it agreed to obtain the ethics board’s approval for any changes to the project, he says.
But no approvals were sought, nor granted when the government ended the project. When Veritas rejected the cancellation and “wind-down plan,” the government ended its contract with the company, Perry added.
Killing the project “was an ethical violation … because it was not approved by its ethics review board.”
It was also unethical for the government to end payments in March “cold turkey, with no transition support nor compensation to make participants whole,” Perry’s factum says.
Veritas lodged a complaint with the provincial Ombudsman’s Office, last fall, company president Martin Letendre confirmed in an interview. But the ombudsman’s investigation was terminated when the court challenge was launched, he said.
For its part, the government argues its decision to cancel the pilot project and stop payments in March “are policy choices made with regard to economic, social and political considerations” that are not reviewable by the courts.
“First, government has the exclusive jurisdiction to make policy choices that balance interests and may be contrary to some interests,” its factum argues.
“Second, the opinions of research ethicists do not supersede cabinet authority to make policy decisions,” it adds.
Courts have ruled in the past that decisions that contravene election promises, reverse or change policies, or knowingly cause harm, do not amount to bad faith, the government’s factum notes.
“At issue in this case is not an operational decision targeting a particular person or corporation, rather, at issue is the government’s economic and social policy choice,” the government argues. “There is no right to procedural fairness or legitimate expectation for consultation about Crown policy choices.”
When participants enrolled, they were told they would receive payments for “up to” three years, the government notes.
“There is no commitment in any of the documents to provide participants payments for a full three years,” the factum says. “Rather, ‘up to’ three years plainly means a maximum … not a minimum.”
The cancellation was not irrational, as participants claim, because it is part of the Ford government’s social assistance reform plans that will “focus resources on more proven approaches.”
“Government policy may change, especially after an election resulting in a change in government,” the government’s factum says. “Social programs are implemented, changed, wound down, cancelled and followed by new social programs. These policy choices are not (subject to judicial review) in the courts.”