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Ontario government facing class action suit for abruptly cancelling basic income program

In the basic income pilot — which Doug Ford's provincial government cancelled in July 2018, before it finished — about 4,000 participants in Hamilton, Lindsay, Ont. and Thunder Bay, Ont. earning less than $34,000 received just under $17,000 annually. The program was expected to run for three years but was instead cancelled after one year. (Christopher Katsarov/The Canadian Press - image credit)

The Ontario government is facing a class action lawsuit for the cancellation of the province's basic income pilot project — an abrupt move that some say caused significant emotional and financial harm.

In a statement on Tuesday, Toronto law firm Cavalluzzo LLP says the class action suit, brought forward by 4,000 people who took part in the project, claims damages for the sudden cancellation in July 2018 by Doug Ford's government. The lawsuit is seeking damages of up to $200 million.

As part of the pilot, about 4,000 participants in Hamilton, Lindsay and Thunder Bay earning less than $34,000 received just under $17,000 annually. The amount decreased by 50 cents for every dollar an individual earned through work and couples received a little more than $24,000. People with disabilities received an additional $6,000.

Lawyer Stephen Moreau, of Cavalluzzo LLP, said the province made a promise to individuals to provide basic income payments for three years.

"When you make a promise like that, you have to keep it. It's a contract," he said.

"The government still does business and enters into contracts the way people do. They don't get to change their minds once they've entered into it. That's our allegation."

Moreau said the class action gives individuals, who might not be able to afford to go to court individually, access to the judicial system.

'The floor was yanked out from underneath me'

After Lindsay resident Dana Bowman was selected to participate in the program, she said she could purchase fresh produce from her local farmer's market, rather than eating canned food and using food banks.

"It was just such a relief to be able to stand in the grocery line and not worry that I wasn't going to have enough," Bowman said.

Prior to being selected to participate in the program, she said she was receiving Ontario Disability Support Program (ODSP) benefits.  While only receiving ODSP benefits, Bowman said she visited food banks and purchased day-old foods. She struggled to afford haircuts and laundry.

Lindsay resident Dana Bowman, who participated in the basic income pilot program, said the program changed her life. The class action law suit is giving a voice to participants, she said.
Lindsay resident Dana Bowman, who participated in the basic income pilot program, said the program changed her life. The class action law suit is giving a voice to participants, she said.

Lindsay resident Dana Bowman, who participated in the basic income pilot program, said the program changed her life. The class action lawsuit is giving a voice to participants, she said. (CBC)

The pilot program changed her life, she said. With the additional income, she could also afford to more frequently visit her daughter and grandchildren who live an hour's drive away.

During these visits, Bowman said she brought along food and treats that she purchased herself, rather than feeling like "a burden to [her daughter's] table."

After the cancellation of the pilot project, she has since returned to ODSP and receives about $700 per month, half of what she was receiving under the basic income pilot.

Bowman said she has returned to surviving from food banks and buying day-old food. She can no longer afford to visit her daughter and grandchildren as often as before.

"The floor was yanked out from underneath me," she said. "I just felt so lied to."

Ontario government not commenting on case

CBC Toronto reached out to the premier's office but did not receive an immediate response.

The project, which was introduced in 2017 with the goal of studying the impacts of a basic income, was supposed to last for three years.

While there are variations on its implementation, basic income generally describes a policy in which the government gives individuals unconditional cash transfers to meet basic needs.

At the time of the cancellation, then Minister of Children, Community and Social Services, Lisa MacLeod, said the project was expensive, and "clearly not the answer for Ontario families."

On Wednesday, in a scrum at Queen's Park, MacLeod said she was not familiar with the class action lawsuit.

"I can only speak to the fact that, at that time, we were making some changes to social assistance, including raising the rates," she said.

Asked if there was something else she could say about why the pilot project was cancelled, MacLeod said. "You'll have to ask Premier Ford."

In an email to CBC News, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services said they could not comment on the case as it is before the courts.

While participating in the basic income project, Bowman said she made plans to complete a college degree in social work. Under ODSP conditions at the time, she said she would have lost coverage for her medication if she had taken out a student loan to pursue her degree.

"Basic income removed those barriers for me," she said.

The class action lawsuit is giving a voice to the program's participants, Bowman said.

"I wasn't looking to get rich, this isn't free money," she said. "It's dignity [and] financial stability."