It’s Time for Big Ideas–Time for a First Nations Universal Basic Income Program

In this first of a series of articles from Master’s students at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University, Kayli Avveduti advocates a Universal Basic Income as an important step in alleviating the poverty and plight of First Nations people in Canada.

Kayli Avveduti

June 15, 2020

To paraphrase Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor, crisis is an opportunity to do things that were believed to be impossible. The current COVID-19 crisis is providing an opportunity to do what was thought to be impossible, an opportunity for the government to introduce a First Nations specific Universal Basic Income (UBI) program.

The pandemic has brought hardship and uncertainty that has been quelled effectively by government support programs such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) and the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS). But First Nations people were already familiar with the hardship many Canadians are currently facing for the first time. In fact, the pandemic has only exacerbated the hardships that First Nations have always endured.

In Canada, First Nations people experience lower health, social, and education outcomes than non-First Nations Canadians across the board. We are disproportionately burdened by lower life expectancy and chronic illnesses, poor education and employment outcomes, and high levels of poverty. These disparities are exacerbated by the lack of available financial resources and access to services for First Nations people.

Policies that have attempted to address the social and economic conditions that keep First Nations people in poverty have failed. Economic reconciliation in the form of a UBI could be a policy solution that pulls First Nations children and families out of poverty and gives us a fighting chance to succeed in this country.

The current system has never served First Nations people well. It forces us to rely on programs that provide few opportunities to break the poverty cycle. We experience low levels of social mobility and the current policies meant to help First Nations people continue to hold us back. The inequality gap continues to widen, and First Nations people are falling further and further behind.

A UBI could serve as a necessary cycle breaker. A Basic Income could provide the same opportunities to First Nations people that Canadians born on the other side of the system enjoy. This crisis could help Canada move away from systems that perpetuate poverty and marginalize First Nations people.

Plenty of ink has already been spread debating the pros and cons of a UBI in the wake of the current pandemic. One of the often-lauded benefits of a UBI program would be the elimination of complicated welfare bureaucracies. For First Nations people welfare bureaucracies are incredibly complicated due to jurisdictional challenges. First Nations people often must navigate the difficult and tangled webs of both the federal and provincial bureaucracy to receive necessary supports.

Jurisdictional burdens are only likely to increase as a result of an urbanization trend among First Nations people. Communities are having greater difficulty sustaining programming and providing job opportunities for their growing populations. As a result, more and more First Nations people have moved to urban centres to provide better opportunities for their families. Continued urbanization will make navigating government bureaucracies increasingly more difficult and complicated, while also adding increased pressure on provincial services.

The successful development and rollout of federal support programs such as the CERB and the CEWS demonstrate that the “impossible” is indeed possible. The CERB and CEWS demonstrate the willingness of the current government to provide necessary assistance to Canadians facing incredible hardship.

If change truly happens in a crisis, perhaps this is the crisis where Canada could positively advance reconciliation by providing a UBI that meets the basic needs of First Nations people.

A UBI program should not replace the funding of important programs such as health, education, and infrastructure. Instead it should bolster the continued flow of funding to communities so they can sustain the necessary programs and support to their members. A UBI would help alleviate financial burdens on communities as most communities offer support that go beyond welfare programs. Providing a minimum annual income would empower First Nation people and ensure that we no longer suffer from a lack of necessary resources. A UBI combined with continued funding directly to communities, could effectively raise First Nations children and families out of poverty leading to better health and education outcomes.

Contemporary structures have not been working and continue to perpetuate the marginalization of First Nations people in Canada. The introduction of a UBI could be the first step in tearing down those structures and changing the attitudes of other Canadians that have disadvantaged First Nation people for too long.

When discussing the prospect of a UBI for all Canadians Maclean’s declared “A universal basic income seems a fitting rebuttal to the universal hardship wrought by the current pandemic.” I believe a First Nations universal basic income could be a fitting rebuttal to the hardship wrought by the enduring colonialist structures that continue to perpetuate poverty in First Nations communities.

Kayli Avveduti is a member of the Alexander First Nation and is a Master’s student at the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.