As the flames streaked down the cement highway median, Rebecca Pallister knew she was in real trouble. Could cement actually burn? In her rear view mirror the forests surrounding Fort McMurray were falling like blackened matchsticks as she gripped her steering wheel more tightly.
It was the spring of 2016 and Canada’s oil capital was on fire.
Today, her escape from the northern Alberta town, known colloquially as ‘Fort Mac,’ is just a vivid memory. For many people who work in the oil sands industry, their roots are often from elsewhere in Canada, having been lured to the prairie province when crude prices soared.
Pallister had gone to Alberta because all jobs were booming, the great spin-off that always happens when the oil industry is flush with demand. She had spent five years of her life building up a house-cleaning business in the area. In the process, she met two people who would become close friends along the way.
For Pallister, the fire that consumed her small business was a devastating blow. Unable to draw upon any insurance money (as many place-based businesses were able to do) she returned to her Cape Breton roots on the eastern shore. In the aftermath of the Fort Mac fires, 88,000 people were forced to flee their homes. The fire destroyed nearly 1,600 buildings and sparked nearly $4-billion in insurance claims.
The Cabot Trail
Pallister is working at her family’s small seasonal rest stop for weary travellers, set on the world-famous Cabot Trail of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. It’s a convenience stop that sells the basics, from coffee and tea to homemade treats and a few water toys. She’s working there again to try and get back on her feet but the tourism season is short in Atlantic Canada.
“It’s gorgeous here,” says Pallister. “But I wonder what this fall and winter will bring for me. I still can’t recognize my life in many ways.”
In the off-season, she plans on trying to start a house-cleaning business again from ground zero. But she’s worried that things won’t be the same in Cape Breton, where the local economy is less robust.
It’s this fact that has her dismayed and she wishes she had a leg up to get started, so she can test her idea.
When told about the idea of basic income policy, and how it would be a cash transfer from government to individuals, regardless of work status, Pallister says she wishes Nova Scotia had it in effect right now so she could focus on building her business again.
“I’d use that as a stepping stone for sure,” she says. “Right now I feel like I’m imposing on family.”
In Ontario, a basic income pilot is being conducted in three cities. Eligible participants receive:
- Up to $16,989 per year for a single person, less 50 percent of any earned income
- Up to $24,027 per year for a couple, less 50 percent of any earned income
- Up to an additional $6,000 per year for a person with a disability.
For a single person, like Pallister, a person would receive just over $1,400 a month. Basic income experts say that’s just enough to stay out of poverty, and may provide a much-needed cushion for people to choose an entrepreneurial path. The funds could help struggling artists or business-minded people to take on new opportunities.
While Nova Scotia is not known to be pursuing basic income at this time, the policy is gaining increasing traction in Canada. One known exception is Halifax Mayor Mike Savage who has stated publicly before that basic income is worth exploring and testing.
In Prince Edward Island, the Legislature agreed unanimously to have the province work with the federal government in the hope of running a Basic Income pilot on the island.
The Quebec Liberal government hinted strongly in its recent budget that some form of basic income guarantee is imminent – but likely only for a small portion of the province, at least to begin with. Quebec will bypass any testing of the program and instead will begin a restrained roll-out of a minimum income program aimed at lifting the most vulnerable out of poverty.
The New Democratic Party (NDP), in a deal with the balance-of-power-holding Green Party, have committed to run a basic income pilot as well.
***Rebecca Pallister is not her real name, in order to protect her identity.