Smiths Falls residents fight for guaranteed income pilot project

The mayor of Smiths Falls, Ont., wants to convince the Ontario government his town should be a test site for a basic income pilot project to lift people out of poverty. But his fellow council members voted the idea down and many residents are angry.

'I have to believe that they didn't understand what they were voting down'

Resident Carol Anne Knapp believes Smiths Falls, Ont., is the perfect place for Ontario to pilot a guaranteed income program. (Kate Porter/CBC)

While other Ontario communities are angling to be chosen as a test site for a dramatically different approach to alleviating poverty, members of the town council in struggling Smiths Falls, Ont., voted this week they don't even want their town to be considered.

The mayor, Shawn Pankow, hoped at an upcoming conference to make the case to the province for the town to be a test site for a guaranteed income pilot project, but was shot down.

Resident Darlene Kantor was startled after reading about Monday's committee-of-the-whole vote in the local news.

This could be considered the best stimulus package this community could hope for.- Carole Anne Knapp, Smiths Falls resident

"We need this. It's a trial. What harm is it going to harm us to try it?" she said.

Kantor supplements her disability support payments by working as a building superintendent. She hears stories of residents struggling financially in a town where major employers such as Hershey's Chocolate or Stanley Tools have left.

"I see so many people suffer, or come to me, 'Darlene, I can't pay my rent. I gotta buy food for my kids.'

"And then they get evicted."

Mayor hopes to break cycle of poverty

Pankow is well aware of his town's challenges in the decade since hundreds of well-paying jobs disappeared: more people renting, incomes falling even further below the provincial average, and a third of children living below the poverty line.
Smiths Falls Mayor Shawn Pankow still hopes to see his community selected as a test site for Ontario's basic income pilot project, even though town councillors voted against having him advocate to the minister. (Kate Porter/CBC)

"It's a community that's faced some hardships, had some challenges and the people of our community felt that," he said.

After Ontario's finance minister raised the idea of guaranteed incomes in the budget last spring, Pankow wrote to ask the province to consider Smiths Falls for a pilot project. By spring 2017, the province will select a few communities based on which locations might provide reliable test results to show whether the idea could be replicated province-wide.

Pankow has read a discussion paper by Hugh Segal, which recommends the province try giving individuals $1,320 per month with an extra $500 for those with disabilities.

Pankow is convinced a guaranteed income would change lives by boosting people's confidence and helping them find work without fear of having their government assistance cheques clawed back.

"If you're living in despair or addiction or crisis all the time because you can't make ends meet and you don't know where the next meal is going to come from, and you're feeding non-nutritious food to your kids because that's all you can afford, the future of those kids is going to be the same as the parents," he said.

Councillor says people need to learn to stretch money

"I don't think the whole project is going to work. I don't think it will be successful," said Dawn Quinn, a longtime town councillor.

On a sunny December day, a couple of days after the vote, she's making rounds of municipal offices, thanking employees for their work by handing out boxes of holiday chocolates.

She does believe poverty is an issue to tackle, but doesn't think giving no-strings-attached money to individuals is the way to do it.
Dawn Quinn, a longtime town councillor in Smiths Falls, says she doesn't believe a basic income program would work and that there are better ways to address poverty, including by teaching children financial literacy in schools. (CBC)

"They need to be able to learn how to take that money and stretch it. I was raised by a mother who said, 'Give me a pound of hamburger and a bag of macaroni and I can feed my family for a week.' We need more of that kind of thinking," Quinn said.

Pankow counters that when people are spending nearly all of their social assistance cheques on rent, most people are being as frugal as they can be.

But Quinn said everything starts with education and teaching children to budget and save. She has always been self-employed and went back to school while raising two daughters on her own.

"I'm not against people having a better income. That would be wonderful. But the income all has to come from somewhere and I don't think the taxpayers can afford to be paying any more taxes. And if it's going to be spent, let's spend it wisely," she said.

Residents petition councillors to reconsider

Carol Anne Knapp is so frustrated by the three nay votes at the Dec. 19 meeting that she's walking down Smiths Falls' main street, with its several empty storefronts, carrying a placard covered in information about guaranteed income programs.

"I have to believe that they didn't understand what they were voting down, that this can be considered not just a handout to those who are less fortunate, including hungry kids and destitute seniors.This could be considered the best stimulus package this community could hope for," she said.

"It's been a devastation since Hershey's left."

Knapp has canvassed downtown businesses to sign a petition asking for councillors to reconsider.

"I think the whole town should get together — disabled people, elderly people, people on Ontario Works — and go down to the town hall and protest," agreed Kantor.
'We need the help so bad. There are no jobs in town. The young kids have nothing to look forward to,' says resident Darlene Kantor. (Kate Porter/CBC)

She believes they need to know better the stories of people she's met as a building superintendent: seniors who don't buy food, young women left to rummage garbage bins for something to eat.

"They need to come with me and see what I see. It hurts. It hurts so bad to see people struggle," said Kantor.

While the province holds its own consultations in Kingston on Jan. 9 and Ottawa on Jan. 24, Pankow plans to hold a public meeting for Smiths Falls residents in mid-January with public health officials.

The mayor hopes if his council colleagues hear compelling stories from residents, they might change their minds about guaranteed incomes.

"Please, town council, give it a try for Smiths Falls," urged Kantor. "It might brighten up Smiths Falls, make people happier."


Kate Porter


Kate Porter covers municipal affairs for CBC Ottawa. Over the past two decades, she has also produced in-depth reports for radio, web and TV, regularly presented the radio news, and covered the arts beat.