THUNDER BAY – Joshua Donald Hewitt knows that poverty isn't a choice.
A recipient of the basic income pilot project, which the Doug Ford led Progressive Conservative government is axing, Hewitt believes poverty, homelessness and addiction are all long-term health concerns that governments need to re-evaluate how they’re addressed.
“I strongly believe since poverty is a form of structural violence and environment shapes our behaviour, it’s up to us as citizens to come together and really address that and tackle it head on,” Hewitt said.
“It’s not even about the politicians to me. It’s about the people who vote for the politicians. It’s about the perspective the community has and changing that perspective Canada-wide.”
Dozens of people gathered outside Thunder Bay city hall on a chilly, snowy Tuesday afternoon to voice their concerns about the direction the Progressive Conservative government is heading with their approach to social assistance programs.
From winding down the basic income pilot project, halving the proposed increases to Ontario Works and the Ontario Disability Support Program, freezing minimum wage and eliminating the provincial children and youth advocate’s office, organizer Angie Lynch said a number of causes brought people to the rally.
“People need to understand that this has impacted people in a huge way. People are living in abject poverty. What people receive from the basic income, ODSP and OW, the rates are far too low. People can’t afford it,” Lynch said, adding the maximum monthly Ontario Works payout for food and shelter is $733, though the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Thunder Bay is $750 per month.
“There is just no way that people can provide a roof over their head and healthy food on what is provided.”
Lynch, who works as a peer support organizer for Advocacy North, said people living in poverty are more likely to be marginalized and disenfranchised, with their voices not being heard. She said events like Tuesday’s demonstration are meant to amplify their voices.
“It’s terrible to hear the stories, especially because I was hearing the stories about how well people were doing on basic income. I was seeing the difference it was making in people’s lives,” Lynch said.
“Now that we seem to be taking a step backwards, it’s horrifying.”
Hewitt, a basic income recipient since April, said he wanted to come out to show the importance of the program.
Having been in and out of homeless for eight years and struggled with addictions for 10 years until being sober for the last three, Hewitt applied to basic income in 2017 before later getting on earlier this year.
Hewitt said the income supplement allowed him to devote time and energy to his StandUp4CleanUp initiative, which has grown from four partnerships to more than 16 and this year removed more than 15,000 pounds of garbage.
“I really want to involve myself in the community and show people that they really have the opportunity to generate their own change,” Hewitt said. “Basic income has allowed me to generate such a positive change in my community, I can only hope to cascade that effect along to others.”
Lynch said the demonstration was held at city hall due to its accessibility and visibility. While she acknowledged the issues being raised are largely provincial, she added that they will be calling on municipal government to help those living in poverty in the city.
“We want to come up with some really viable, good solutions and work with our city council to start making some good changes in Thunder Bay,” Lynch said.