By Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle
An ambulance pulls up to the scene of an accident. There is a young man lying on the ground. He has been hit by a vehicle. Paramedics quickly approach the man and begin asking a series of questions about his health care practices, his willingness to engage in follow up if he were treated, and then seek to ascertain his own culpability in the accident. The man is overwhelmed by the questions and simply wants help. He is told that his responses will be used to determine the types and quantity of help he will be given.
We would be absolutely appalled if this story were true. This is not how we understand health care in Canada. Since the time of Tommy Douglas, we see such care as a right afforded every person in this country regardless of their circumstances or choices. Indeed, many in Canada take pride over the availability of basic health care for all.
While we assume that people should be treated with respect and dignity when accessing health care in this country, the same expectations are not afforded to those who need financial assistance. In fact, applications for social assistance typically include the types of questions suggested above – requiring personal details about the individual’s financial situation, disqualifying individuals until they have virtually eliminated all their savings, insistence on knowing all efforts being made to pull themselves out of poverty, assumptions that individuals in these circumstances are somehow culpable. Those who are disabled are regularly asked to prove this with doctor’s notes as though this can somehow magically change from one year to the next.
This mistrust can even extend to the charity offered by well meaning individuals and organizations. How often have we heard people say ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ as though those who use food banks should be content with whatever they get. Would we really be content with having very limited or even no options when we buy groceries? How happy would we be to get a jar of seafood sauce when we have no ability to buy seafood? How thrilled would we be to get a cake mix only to discover it is years old and now contains bugs? How frustrated might we feel if we rarely had access to bread, fresh produce, milk, and non-canned meat?
In contrast, we believe that God gives us free will! God loves us so much that God is giving us the ability to choose our paths for ourselves regardless of whether these are ideal. God forgives when we go astray, and welcomes us back like the Prodigal Father. God does not seek to control the choices we make and meets us where we are at, continually offering the resources we need to live fully as the beloved children we have been created to be. What would it look like if we loved others as God loves us?
What would it be like to create a world in which all people have the freedom to make their own choices in their own time? What would it take to trust the individual to decide what is best for them? Can we be understanding and forgiving when choices have negative consequences? Can we lovingly support people throughout their journey, providing the resources they need to journey safely and confidently?
This Lent, Social and Ecological Justice Huron has read through Evelyn Forget’s book “Basic Income for Canadians”. The text raises some of these very questions. Offering a Guaranteed Basic Income to individuals provides a safety net that includes respect and dignity by allowing the individuals to choose how to use the resources they are given. This safety net is already provided to seniors through the Guaranteed Income Supplement, allowing this age group the freedom to choose when to remain in their homes and when to move to retirement care. In large part due to this supplement, seniors have the lowest poverty rates of any age group. The Canadian Child Benefit functions in a similar way, although not as effectively, for families with children.
Recognizing that we can respect the dignity of seniors and provide them with the resources they need to have the basic necessities of life, what would it take to extend the same respect and dignity to all people? This is one of the arguments Forget offers in support of a Basic Income for Canadians. Consider reading the book. Consider taking to heart the words of Helder Camara: When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist. As we seek to transform the unjust structures of society that result in poverty, may we be comfortable being called communists.
Rev. Chris Brouillard-Coyle is a tri-chair of SEJH and a tri-chair of Justice League of Huron.
(Featured photo: Michelle Henderson/Unsplash)