This transcript of Hannah Bell's response to the Speech from the Throne is copied from the official Hansard record of the Legislature.
To watch the video recording of this speech, go to www.assembly.pe.ca/video-archive, select "Spring 2021", click on the March 4th video and advance to the 2:19 mark. Hannah's remarks conclude on March 5th (advance to the 1:23:20 mark.
I really appreciate the opportunity to be able to speak in response to the tabled Speech From the Throne. Unlike my Liberal colleagues, I am actually going to respond to the Speech From the Throne. I have not only comments on that, but also, given that the speech is a vision or a plan, what I’d like to do is actually introduce some immediate actions that I would hope to see – that the government take, particularly in response to some of those topics and challenges that have been a big point of discussion in the last few days.
I’m really encouraged to hear my Liberal colleagues speak so much about poverty, given that over the past couple of years, we’ve had to spend quite a lot of time explaining what poverty actually meant. It’s really encouraging to see them now embrace that and I really look forward to seeing that perhaps that will be reflected in support for the poverty elimination strategy act that we’ll be bringing forward later in this sitting.
Poverty is obviously a very broad topic. It is somewhat disappointing that we don’t see more emphasis on poverty in the Speech From the Throne, but it is encouraging that, yet again, we see a very clear commitment by the use of the word elimination. Elimination of poverty is a very different activity than reducing, and what elimination does is it means that we are committing to saying that nobody will be left behind.
I think that’s one of the primary things that I need to be able to speak about here in this House, and in response to the Speech From the Throne – is around poverty, around housing, and equity. These are areas that are thin in the speech but large in the portfolio, they’re large in our community, they’re large right now in terms of topics and things we’ve been talking about, and they’re large because they impact so many Islanders.
If I had the opportunity to be able to inform the budget and the operational activities that would arise out of that, I would recommend to this government some really concrete, solid, and tangible actions that they could take immediately; not with another plan or another strategy, but in the next three months, the next six months, the next 12 months.
The hon. member across the space, when speaking about what he’s learned in the last few days as Minister of Social Development and Housing, has spoken about how important it is that we listen to stakeholders and that we work collaboratively. I appreciate that he’s here in the House. I appreciate that he’s here with open ears to potentially hear some ideas or thoughts that are worth following up on because these don’t come just from me. I’m not here to talk about what I want. I’m here to talk about what I champion on behalf of Islanders and those Islanders in need.
To eliminate systemic poverty, as per the throne speech and that upcoming legislation, there are tangible actions that this government can take. They begin by recognizing that the value of an individual is not measured by how they contribute to the economy but what value they have in society – that every person has value and deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s something we say, but we actually have to think about what that means.
We have to ensure that we bring a human rights-based approach to how we engage with everyone in our community and we have to ensure that we are using evidence – that we are making evidence-based decisions with data, consultation, and who and how we talk.
What would this look like in terms of actions? Looking at those who are most vulnerable – those who are on social assistance in our communities – we would need to immediately increase the benefits that those on social assistance receive to the poverty line because 50% of people – sorry, I’ll have to get my numbers right, but up to 50% of the people on social assistance are only receiving 50% of the money that they would need to be at the poverty line.
They are living on $10,000 or less a year. That’s the money that we provide to them because they are unable to take care of themselves. It’s not acceptable that we think that it’s okay, as government policy, to only provide 50% of a poverty line. So, we’re talking about needing to increase that benefit to the poverty line. We need to index social assistance rates to changes in the poverty line. We need to increase the rental allowance that is paid to those on assistance to accurately reflect the market cost of housing in our province, which may mean combining social assistance, rental allowances, and rental vouchers.
We need to reform the application, eligibility, and case management process and policies, some of which still date back to 2007. We need to enable secure online reporting, payments, and case notes. Our Auditor General has consistently highlighted how difficult it is to manage social assistance case files when they are literally kept on bits of paper, Post-it notes, and when case officers change on sometimes a monthly basis, there is no continuity of care, which means there is no continuity of service.
We need to integrate support for addictions and mental health into the supports we provide for people who are on social assistance. We need to recognize that social assistance policies also inform how we support people who are on our new AccessAbility program for people who are disabled.
So, the same policies that decide that people will only get 50% of the money they actually need to survive on is actually the baseline we also use for people who are fundamentally unable to enter the workforce in any meaningful way or cannot do so because they are not physically or mentally able to do so through their disability. But we also need to recognize that being disabled does not mean that you cannot or don’t want to work. It just means that we need to provide different adaptations and supports.
So, our AccessAbility Supports program, in addition to those things I mentioned under the social assistance, needs to coordinate. They need to coordinate with all of the other providers, including nonprofit organizations and the federal government, who have substantial promises made for initiatives and support for those who are disabled but are not currently – we don’t currently know what those are. So, as those roll out from the federal government, we need to ensure that we are coordinating and filling any gaps.
We need to eliminate the asset test. The fact that you own your home should not prevent you from being able to access other services and supports to be able to be, again, a valued member of society.
We need to eliminate the reassessment requirement. Somebody who is permanently disabled because they have lost their leg to complications from diabetes should not have to prove every year that they have still not got their leg back. I know that sounds ridiculous but that is actually what happens and it is the most undignified thing to do to people who are suffering from a disability. If somebody has been diagnosed with longterm PTSD, they should not have to go through the trauma over and over of having to explain to a new case officer on an annual or biannual basis that they’re still hurting – that they’re still damaged, because it’s more damaging to have to tell that story than it is to actually try and receive support for it.
Treating people with dignity and respect does not take a lot of work but it takes work to make us rethink what’s wrong with the ways that we do things now. That doesn’t mean that the people that are applying those policies or programs are wrong or mean, but they’re following the laws and the regulations that we design. If we don’t ask fundamental questions about why do we do this, then we’re not able to address the problem.
The reassessment is probably there for a good reason. We should be asking why, but we shouldn’t be applying it to everybody. Not everybody is the same.
We can coordinate our fragmented services that help support people with disabilities in our community, which include so many different areas, from housing to education, with, for example, autism supports, rehabilitation services, physio – they’re all in different departments, and people have to go through so many hoops every single time. They have to tell their story every single time, and if they don’t know exactly the right question to ask, then they’re not going to get those supports. I’ve heard so many stories from people who tell me: If only I had known I could have got this funding, we could have been so much better, but nobody ever told us.
We need to eliminate the work search requirement for people with long-term disabilities. If they feel that they are able to go to work, they’re going to tell you. They’re going to ask. They’re going to step up or roll up or put their hand up. But you can’t connect the requirement to go to work with the eligibility to receive support for somebody who isn’t actually able to do that right now.
Overall, for people who are on social assistance and disability support, we need to change, on a fundamental way, the belief that people are out there to cheat the system. There will always be people who take advantage of a system that provides funds, but if we start from a position that everybody is a liar and a cheat, then we are doing them a disservice and we are punishing all of those other people who are genuinely in need for the bad actions of a few bad apples. We need to think about what happens when we develop policies that encourage us to say no instead of yes for people who genuinely need our support.
The other key thing that we need to talk about over and over again is that people who are poor are not all on social assistance. Poverty in PEI is huge and it’s invisible and it’s the people – you’ve heard me say this, honestly, in this House. You can probably all say it with me: It’s the ordinary person on the street. It’s one in five Islanders. It’s children, it’s families, it’s working people, it’s seniors, it’s everybody. Being on low income does not mean that you cannot work. In fact, most of the people who are working age who are poor are working. They’re working two jobs or three jobs. They’re in precarious employment. But they are doing their best and they’re trying to make ends meet. So, when we design and develop programs for poverty elimination, we need to recognize and understand who it is we’re talking about and why they are poor.
Ten thousand seniors in PEI live in poverty because the only income they have is OAS and GIS and when you have OAS and GIS, usually that means that you are a woman who didn’t have a pension or any other income to fall back on. The majority of our poor seniors are women and their average income is under $12,000 a year.
And I don’t know about you, but I cannot imagine how you can live in any kind of dignity on $12,000 a year. I know that, because I am passionate about this and that I live and breathe this, that I can be very intense when I talk about this. I understand that, but I think it’s really important that we know the numbers and we know what we’re talking about and that we are able to say, with confidence, this is a problem, even though it makes us uncomfortable. It is really uncomfortable for us to talk about being this remarkable place where we live, that is beautiful and prosperous and wealthy.
We are wealthy. We are wealthy in our land and our soil and our water, in food, in food production, in agriculture, in the opportunities that we have, in our education system, in our health care system, even though it doesn’t work the way it should right now, and as we experience it, we don’t love it. But you know, you look somewhere else in the world and we can come back and say, I’m grateful I live here.
I am blessed to live here. When my family moved here in 1978, we moved from inner London in the UK, here. As you know, and I’ve told you in the House before, we left a really difficult family situation and we moved halfway around the world and came to PEI. My earliest memories of coming to PEI were – we landed in New York, in JFK, and we drove from JFK up the coast at the end of a very, very hot May to PEI. I saw PEI for the first time from the ferry at sunset. So, my earliest memory and my first memory of PEI is the red cliffs at sunset from the car ferry on May 31st, 1978.
The difference for somebody who had grown up in London and gone to public school and been sort of an ordinary kid in an ordinary community – coming here is impossible to describe. I hadn’t seen so many things that everybody else takes for granted living here. But one of the things that I tell people over and over again when they ask me about what it’s like to choose to get to live in PEI and to live and grow up in PEI is that you cannot imagine what a blessing it is to be somewhere where you are so safe.
But this isn’t the experience for every Islander. It never has been the experience for every Islander. And we can’t be nostalgic or blinded or narrow-visioned about what reality actually looks like for our friends and our neighbours.
For low-income Islanders, something that would make a huge difference would be to provide extended basic health benefits. So, access to dental care, which we’ve asked for and hopefully will see soon coming from the department of health, for anybody who is in a low income. The indignity of having to have your teeth pulled out because you can’t afford to get your teeth taken care of is huge. I don’t think those of us, again, who have a relatively reasonable smile would understand what it’s like when you’re trying to go for a job interview but you have no teeth and you immediately get judged as you walk in the door because of how you look.
Being able to get glasses when you need them so that you actually don’t miss what’s going on in the classroom but you’re too afraid to tell your mom and dad that you can’t see the board anymore because you know how much glasses cost and you can’t afford them. Being able to get the right drugs when you need them through our Pharmacare program rather than putting off and making your health care worse.
These are expensive things. I recognize that all the things that I’m talking about are expensive things but you know what’s more expensive – is allowing people to suffer and get worse and then have to treat them anyway. If you want to look at it from a purely economic basis, it makes good economic sense to take care of people where they are, when they are, before they become disabled or impacted or sicker or sadder.
We can expand the eligibility for caregiver supports to recognize that more and more Islanders are sandwich-generationed. They’re taking care of their kids and they’re taking care of their elderly parents or friends or relatives. Grandparents are taking care of kids and they need to be able to access supports so that they can afford to do that.
We need to make sure that when we bring out programs for low-income Islanders that we’re using the same set of references as what does low income mean. As we design and deliver those programs, everybody who is eligible can get them. It’s not a matter of I can do that one but not the other one because the numbers don’t match.
These are straightforward things that, with political will and intent, we can do. None of these things are things that we have to wait five years for. We need to spread them out so that we can afford them, but we also have to make a decision about when can we not afford to do these things.
In our community, we need to support the NGOs that we keep asking to step up and fill the gaps. You’ve heard me talk about this again before and I, unfortunately, am disappointed again that we have not really honoured that commitment that this government made to provide multiyear operational funding. It’s a little bit patchwork and there seems to be some reluctance in trusting the NGOs with the money.
Honestly, I am, again, disappointed that we are so quick to partner, to download, to connect, to expect our incredibly important, hardworking NGOs to keep on stepping up and fill these gaps and we will not trust them with some money to do it. It is such a more cost-effective way to deliver those programs and services across our community by the people who know who those people are that need, in the places where they need it, than to study it and think about it and keep holding on. If you nickel and dime those NGOs to death, they will die. Then where will we be?
We need to increase funding for work assistance programs like Career Bridges, which absolutely treats people with dignity and respect. And provide free transit passes for seniors and students, particularly as you begin to roll out public transit systems into our communities. You want people on those buses, using those buses and the people that have the least amount of money to spend on that transit service it that need it the most. Start with something straightforward to encourage that ridership and prove that it’s a success and help connect our communities from the get-go.
I have already spoken to the Premier about this and saw it reflected in the throne speech and I would like to thank you, Mr. Premier, for recognizing that the school food program supports have to be there when kids aren’t in school. It was phenomenal to see how fast the school board responded by rolling out those food program supports, even just this week, during the 72-hour lockdown. Thank you so much for that.
As an aspect of interventions for poverty, addressing food insecurity by ensuring that kids have one good meal a day is one of the number one things we can do. We know there is 20,000 children in PEI that are in some form of food insecurity. This school food program is a fundamental piece of how we address child food poverty, food insecurity, but insecurity will immediately return when we go to summer break. By expanding some kind of child food support programs, again, probably through our community partners, we can ensure that families are not worried about what they’re going to do when school ends and their kids stop getting those meals.
The Boys and Girls Club in my district already have an incredible backpack program where they literally pack backpacks with healthy food for a weekend for kids and families where they know those families don’t have the food to feed their kids. It’s a completely community-led program, completely done with donations. We got to see those backpacks and talk to the staff when we were there during our district tour.
We’ve got something that works already; we can expand that program. Please think about the fact that this is not impossible to do. This is something, you can turn it around. We just saw with the food program pivoting and getting it out with 24 hours’ notice. These are all interventions that we can and must do if we want to begin to lay the foundation for how do we bring poverty and the trials for those who live in poverty in PEI down.
I’d be remiss, of course, if I did not speak about housing supports. I think it’s pretty clear where I am on that one, but in terms of what could we do within the next few months, there are no shortage of potential programs.
We need to use the current market data to inform rental assistance rates and the associated support programs. The gap between what we offer through our assessment of what somebody needs for rental support and what a market actually is: huge. It’s not like we don’t have that data. In fact, it’s released quarterly.
We can partner with PEI credit unions to provide other creative financing options in addition to the ones that have already been developed by government in both finance and economic development. Credit unions, in particular, are more flexible about other lending models. Where a traditional lender will not necessarily sign off on a mortgage for someone who doesn’t have a previous asset-based history, a credit union will look at things like your rental history.
That creative solution, working with local partners – you can’t get much more local than our credit union – would actually, potentially, open up some really great new opportunities. Those conversations, if they haven’t started already, really need to start and this is, again, it’s something I’ve said before but I’ll keep saying it and eventually it’s going to stick.
We can implement inclusionary zoning requirements for new developments through the Municipal Planning Act. We can regulate short-term rentals and implement a federally-funded buyback program to increase rental stock in critically impacted areas. Then, we can invest in maintenance and upgrades for existing PEI Housing Corporation inventory, particularly seniors housing, which is, in some cases, 40 years old or older.
We also need an ambitious expansion of public housing on PEI. We have often heard language in the House that we cannot compete with the private market. Truthfully, I think it’s necessary that we do. The private housing market is profit driven. Its primary objective is to achieve a return on investment of landlords, and the provision of shelter is incidental. Tenants need homes.
Those two things are not mutually exclusive. Landlords are businesspeople and we understand that, but tenants need homes. There are over 1,000 people on the province’s housing services waitlist right now. Those are just the ones that have actually registered. In addition, there are 1,000 more households receiving rental supplements so they can afford to stay where they are, which tells us that the current housing pressures are at least 2,000 units.
That’s not going to happen by the market at affordable rates. There is no incentive for the market to meet that need. There is, however, a need and an opportunity for government to do so. And that doesn’t mean that government needs to build those buildings. There are so many other creative ways.
We’ve just seen 250 units hit the market in Toronto, downtown, as affordable, done through partnership with the federal government and the Rapid Housing Initiative and they went up in less than six months, with the modular housing approach, which was innovative. My colleague would be very happy that they are net-zero, they are modular, they are built in Canada and they are specifically to address the needs, in this case, of homelessness, transitional housing and supportive housing. We don’t get to say that it can’t be done.
If we support the creation of a PEI housing cooperative NGO here in the province and give it the associated resources it needs, we can also provide the support to the community that wants to develop other innovative housing solutions like housing co-ops. Housing co-ops are where, basically, a cooperative owns and manages the accommodation. That can be anything from a shared home to a multi-unit apartment building, to a multi-family development.
There are tons, again, of examples and experiences across Canada that we can leverage. We have incredible expertise here in the province, shout-out to Lobie Daughton who is absolutely one of the experts in co-op housing who happens to be here in PEI. Again, there is no shortage of examples of has somebody else done it and what can we learn.
Finally, we can leverage federal funds to invest in those mixed-use housing developments, with affordable rent geared to income for youth, families and seniors. Obviously, the initial response is we can’t fix the housing problem right away and I’m not implying that we can but we can empower and encourage and support those in our community who do want to, and government can be an active partner in that and should be.
Equity is the other aspect of the throne speech that I wanted to speak to. In this case, I’m speaking about economic equity and equity that looks at what reforms we need to do from an economic perspective that will better support Islanders, particularly those who are not currently experiencing the Island that we all want everybody to have: the place that is safe, the place that’s healthy, the place that takes care of them the way that we all want to be taken care of.
We’ve spoken about precarious employment and gig work, and we need to have employment standards that protect employees who are gig workers. This is going to become more and more of a reality in our post-COVID future, with the embrace of remote working. It is a reality already for so many people, not just the young ones, in our society who have to piece together multiple different opportunities to generate what they’re going to live on. And they need protection.
We have some phenomenal programs through Skills PEI and I have spoken at length with the Minister of Economic Growth, Tourism and Culture about these but we really need to bring pressure onto the federal government to allow those programs to include those who are not EI eligible.
The Labour Market Development Agreements limit what we can and can’t do with those programs. There is huge opportunity there to be able to broaden the scope and embrace more – especially more, for more diverse populations. An example of a program that is close to my heart is Trade HERizons which encourages women to enter into nontraditional fields in construction and manufacturing. But when they only have a small handful of seats in the program because of the limitations of funding and capacity, it’s going to take a really long time to see our numbers shift from the 5% that we currently have of women participating in that industry.
We need to expand supports to the sector councils and strategic sectors. We don’t have a sector council for IT and that’s a problem. We have a sector council for culture PEI, for culture, but it’s one person and some part-time support and they’re very limited. There are a number of other sector councils that have greater support, power and strength and can represent their constituents differently. They all have different needs, but sector councils are that coordinated voice and they are a really fantastic entry point into not only what are the pressures but where are the opportunities. They’re going to know, and that’s the place where we can move.
Diversity inclusion targets are something which, again, makes some people really uncomfortable. But when I had to write for the third year in a row about how a funding program from Innovation PEI, yet again, was 90% white men, we have a problem with our diversity inclusion and how it’s reflected in what that looks like when we do things like award funds to startup companies.
Diversity inclusion targets need to be set, published and adhered to for all programs and services, including competitions and grants. We cannot see more women, black Islanders and people of colour being represented in startups, for example, entrepreneurship, small business and any of the other programs and services, unless we actively encourage, recruit and set targets for their participation.
Targeted tax relief for seniors and low-income families is something my colleague has and will speak about at length but a creative fiscal policy that is based on ethical decision-making is critical to treat Islanders with dignity and respect through the financial decisions that we make with and for them on how their services need to be funded.
We need to do more to retain our international students and support them during their education. They want to work here. They want to have that piece of our magical Island life, and when we don’t open the door for somebody who is asking you to make a space for them, not only is that rude but it’s a huge lost opportunity and we’ve heard it over and over again. International students need to be able to participate equally in a co-op education program, they need to get the same funding and opportunities, they need to be embraced. These are young people who have come from all over the world to experience life here whilst they get their education and some of them fall in love with it. Why wouldn’t we want them to stay?
I know my time is getting short. I would, though, like to speak about, probably the two larger final topics, around how we address some of the gaps and what, potentially, government could do. One of those is instituting paid sick leave and the other is addressing the minimum wage.
I’m going to speak about the minimum wage first. Our province needs to take bold action. It’s as simple as that. We’ve heard everybody, in one way or another, talk about the gap between what people can earn and what they actually need. We’ve heard members opposite say that the minimum wage – they know the minimum wage isn’t enough. While those words are nice, they don’t help struggling Islanders pay the bills. We’ve seen our neighbours in Nova Scotia approve a minimum wage increase that’s nearly three times the amount of our most recent increase.
I recognize that we have an Employment Standards Board, which is independent, but as I have pointed out on more than one occasion, the Employment Standards Board makes recommendations. It is up to Executive Council to choose what to do with that recommendation, including ignoring it completely and picking a different number.
How is it that in a province that prides itself on being one of the fastest growing provincial economies in the best of times and one of the least impacted in these worst of times, we are unable to provide the same wage growth as our next-door neighbour? We want to be a competitive province for business. Don’t we want the same for our workers, the people who keep this province running? The engine of our economy is not just small business. The engine of the economy are the people that work.
I’d like to address the issue of monopsony, which is not an issue we talk about often on PEI. It’s a concept that needs to be more closely examined by government and it’s a real problem in PEI. We all understand the concept of a monopoly, when a seller of goods or services has total control of the market, but a monopsony is when a buyer of goods or services has total control.
We often see the impacts of a monopsony in the labour market, particularly in communities where there are few employers. In those situations, businesses have a disproportionate amount of power in any real or potential employment relationship, leaving Island workers with very little room to negotiate for their better wages on where they may work or, after all, where else can they work except in their communities?
At this point, any concept of the laws of supply and demand go out the window when you’re in a monopsony because the labour market is no longer competitive. As Bloomberg columnist and finance professor, Noah Smith, once put it: In the extreme case, a company town with only one employer, their market outcome is whatever that company wants it to be. This, of course, will look like greater profits for the company and inadequate wages for workers.
There are plenty of people who will refuse to work if the wages are not adequate. Who are we to blame them? What reasonable person would or should accept employment if it will not pay them enough to even meet their basic needs. This could be an explanation for why we’ve seen a decrease in our provincial labour participation rates. Perhaps the percentage of people who are employed or looking for work are only prepared to work if it actually pays the bills.
Smith also points out, in these cases, minimum wage increases can actually be quite valuable to local communities, not only by increasing wages but by creating employment. Raising the minimum wage to make life more affordable for Islanders will encourage Islanders to return to the workforce. After all, the original purpose of a minimum wage was to protect workers from exploitation, to provide a livable wage. In fact, this is probably why economists are finding that, on the whole, minimum wage increases have zero effects on employment levels. Any job losses that might occur are offset by Islanders rejoining the labour market due to rising wages.
Ronald Reagan is dead and so are the economic ideas of his era. There has never been a time in history where so few economists have believed that the minimum wage is bad for employment. It is simply harder and harder to ignore the growing evidence and I would encourage this government to thoughtfully consider this evidence as well.
At this point, debate on the Speech from the Throne was adjourned for the day and resumed the next day, March 5th, as follows:
I had the opportunity to speak at length yesterday and I’m just going to conclude my remarks today.
But I do think, given some of the comments that have been made by other members in the House, that there is some clarification required, which is relevant to the previous topics that I was bringing forward around poverty, housing and equity. That’s what seems to be a real confusion about what a minimum wage is and what it’s for, what a basic income is and what it’s for, and what a livable wage is and what it’s for.
I’m going to take this opportunity to conclude my remarks by making, hopefully, some clarifications for those who are watching and for the members in the House. Even those that have been participating for a number of months now in the special committee on poverty still seem to have some challenges with this. I think it’s something that clearly is difficult and the more that we talk about it and normalize understanding all of these different terms and what they mean, perhaps it will be easier for us to make decisions that will actually benefit Islanders.
The minimum wage was originally implemented to protect workers and ensure that they have a minimum wage that meant that they could live on what they earned. That’s where it came from and that’s why it’s so important.
We’ve all agreed, pretty much, I think, in this House, that our minimum wage currently is not enough to live on and, in fact, we actually have data done by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives specifically looking at how much it costs to live and what you would need to earn as an hourly wage and, in Charlottetown, that’s $19.30 an hour, which is a pretty far cry from the $13 an hour that we’ll be at as of April 1.
Let me be clear before I am quoted in any way. I am not suggesting that we immediately implement a minimum wage of $19.30. Though that would be great, I am, obviously, also an economist and realistic that there needs to be a bridge from where we are now to achieving a wage. Some of the other measures that I’ve been talking about are things that we do to do that.
A basic income was significantly researched, discussed, presented and we have an extensive report presented in this House and tabled that goes through exactly how and why a basic income is something that we should have as a tool in our toolbox for PEI. But that report made it abundantly clear that the basic income is not the only solution to poverty. It is not a huge, great big bandage that will fix everything that we have here. It is a very large tool but it is one tool of many.
That report made it very clear that we would need to retain and potentially even expand other programs that support Islanders with needs that would not be met by a basic income alone. A great example of that are the additional supports that are provided to disabled Islanders who would require the supports to continue.
When we talk about a basic income, we need to be really clear that we are talking about providing a foundational income for all Islanders so that they are not in poverty. It is literally the base foundation to ensure that Islanders do not suffer from poverty. It would not be replacing a minimum wage in any way because the ability to work has nothing to do with whether or not you should be in poverty.
What a basic income does is ensure that no one is poor anymore. When they work, the money they earn should be paid at or above a minimum wage, whatever that minimum wage is. They should have the employment supports and rights and standards that anyone should be afforded when they work.
When they work, that money they earn is on top of that basic income and our report was very clear that a basic income would be reduced until it was no longer required because somebody is earning enough. There is no connection between how much we pay people as a minimum wage and the need for a basic income. We recognize that those two things work together to make our economy stronger.
It also means that things like programs like the child tax benefit, which has been the most impactful thing that has happened for child poverty in Canada ever, would continue. EI would continue. These are programs that provide alternative forms of income. In fact, they are, in their own way, a form of an income support. The child tax credit, OAS, GIS – these are all ways that we provide income to Islanders in need. Now, they are not sufficient, but they have a huge impact and they would not be removed. We are not in a position where we would consider taking away programs that do the right thing for Islanders.
In the long term, if we are able to bring basic income as a tool into our toolbox, then yes, we may see the end of social assistance and that is not a bad thing. But in the interim, we are not in a position to suggest that we get rid of anything. What we are in a position to do is to suggest that it’s time that we start thinking about all the different tools that we have in the toolbox. It will take a long time. Hopefully not too long, but it will take a long time for us to get to the point where we have a basic income in place that is solid and a part of our social justice system, in which we can start unpacking some of the other things.
So, the list of actions that I identified yesterday around social assistance, around AccessAbility Supports, around low-income supports, housing, community services, and equity – those are all tools as well. And those are tools that we can start implementing now – next week, next month. We do not have to wait for some federal government official to come in on their white horse and save us. We are perfectly capable of doing great things now by taking good action now. And anything we do is going to mean that there are fewer Islanders living in poverty, there are fewer Islanders who are not experiencing the Island that we want everyone to experience, and that that picture of poverty here in PEI is reduced.
Then, when those federal agents on their white horses or whatever they may be ride up, we’re ready. We’re ready because we know who it is that we need to serve. We can talk about how much it’s going to cost. We know where we’ve already achieved. We can demonstrate that we’re in the game.
That’s why the poverty elimination strategy act that I’m going to be bringing forward later on in this session is so important. It allows us to actually show and demonstrate to potential partners, including government and community partners, that we actually take this seriously, that we intend to provide a structure that will support taking meaningful action on poverty, that we can and will measure and provide the data that, frankly, the federal government is going to expect us to provide.
I really appreciate the opportunity to respond to the throne speech and share some of these perhaps not-so-crazy ideas and actions that we can take. I truly believe that we are in a really amazing space currently. COVID has been one of the most difficult things, I think, that many people have experienced, but it also has and does create opportunity for government to be able to pivot. And this is one of those spaces where a pivot is not only an option but it’s a necessity. If we truly mean that all Islanders matter and if we truly think that all Islanders deserve to live in security and dignity, then now is the time to act.
I look forward to working collaboratively with the minister across the floor and with any other member of government who chooses to take this as seriously. I think we have a place here to change our space for the better and that is, frankly, a legacy I think is worth leaving behind.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for the opportunity to speak today.