'You're either in or out': Quebec's plan to fight poverty neglects many, critics say

Meet Peter, who wants to get back to work but needs more time to heal. Staff at Montreal's Old Brewery Mission say there are plenty of people like him, living below the poverty line who won't qualify for Quebec's new guaranteed minimum income.

Peter wants to get back to work but isn't quite ready. He won't likely qualify for guaranteed minimum income

“I walked out of the hospital after an overdose. I was holding my back and there I was — I had no place to go. I was homeless. I didn’t know what to do," says Peter, whose real name CBC has agreed to not publish. (CBC)

"This place saved my life," says Peter, sitting in a quiet corner at Montreal's Old Brewery Mission — the place he's called home for the past two years.

CBC has agreed not to use Peter's real name, because he's trying to find a job and he's afraid it could hurt his chances.

George Ohana, who works at Montreal's Old Brewery Mission, says if Quebec wants to tackle poverty, the government should ensure that people like Peter, who lives on social assistance, are among those to get a minimum guaranteed income while they work towards a better future.

But unless the government modifies its much-lauded plan promising to lift 100,000 people out of poverty, Ohana and other anti-poverty advocates are concerned people in circumstances like Peter's will be overlooked.

The guaranteed basic income — a key measure in the plan unveiled earlier this month by Premier Philippe Couillard and Labour Minister François Blais —- would see the minimum annual revenue of a single person who qualifies increase to just over $18,000 by 2023.

But critics point out that financial boost is only available to people who can get a doctor to confirm that they have a severe limitation, such as a physical or mental disability, which prevents them from working.

Ohana says Peter and a lot of other vulnerable people, there are other priorities that need to come before getting a job, like getting in place the psychological and social supports to be stable enough to job seek. 

"To be able to help these individuals, we need to bring their minimum income to a certain level," he said.

"If not, it's simply too difficult for them to reach a sense of, 'I'm not surviving, I'm looking to the future.'"

Even though Couillard's plan to tackle poverty does include improvements to social assistance and housing, Ohana says it's not enough to get people up to anything beyond "surviving." 

He said Quebec's poverty action plan needs to be more inclusive.

'"You're either in or out. There's no in between. And a lot of the people I work with find themselves in the cracks."

'As low as you can get'

While he's now trying to get his life back on track, a few years ago Peter felt hopeless.

"I walked out of the hospital after an overdose. I was holding my back, and there I was — I had no place to go. I was homeless. I didn't know what to do."

He has a wife and two daughters, but he said his family life unravelled when his mother died in 2011.

"I still have her telephone number on my phone. We always called her Ma, and whenever I had a problem I knew I could always call her."

Growing up, Peter said drinking was a big part of family life.

"Everyone drank…. I mean, if there was no alcohol, there was no party."

Even though he was one of the best hockey players in his league as a child, he said drugs and alcohol eventually got in the way.

He used to play with hockey hall of famer Raymond Bourque.

"After a game or a practice, we'd go into the room … and I'm sitting there having a cold beer, and Raymond's having juice or a Coke," he said.

"So right now Ray's living the life. And here I am, as low as you can get."

With the help of staff at the mission, Peter is trying to tackle his mental health issues and history of substance abuse.

"I just want to find out why ... I have no energy. I never feel good. You'll never see me laughing and having a good time. All the good times are gone."

He hopes to get a job soon. But Ohana says that could take time.


Jaela Bernstien


Jaela Bernstien is a Montreal-based journalist who covers stories about climate change and the environment for CBC News. She has a decade of experience and files regularly for web, radio and TV. She won a CAJ award as part of a team investigating black-market labour in Quebec. You can reach her at