Notes on a recent meeting of Basic Income activists in Toronto

I should publish some notes about a meeting in Toronto of some BI activists. It shows how things are doing in Toronto. Right now we have a few active groups starting to emerge but they are not communicating well with each other.

There is my group which has so far mostly assembled to listen to Robyn Peterson’s powerpoint lectures about the history and issues of a BI. It is worth taking on the road.

There is a group which seems to be coalesced around Jo Grey and her “LIFT” group, and the MP Colin Vaughan. There is the mysterious group working out of Yonge street mission which wants to get this the local religious community involved. And there is this group which was started by Jon Sanderson and is now lead by Matt Talsma. I recently attended this group’s second meeting.

The meeting took place last May 24th in  an old  building in the Niagara neighborhood on the inner west side. This was  an artists colony of sorts, but they are all being evicted to recondition the place as luxury condos. The people at the meeting are mostly artistic types, younger men. So of course they already have a logo. Total attendance was ten.

Their first meeting was held on April 26. The delay between one and two was due to the Winnipeg congress. There was only one woman present, but she was fairly impressive. More about her. One person was just back form working on the Sanders campaign in the states.

The stance of political parties about BI/GLI was discussed. The Liberals have called for a pilot. The NDP is now leaning strongly towards BI, now that it was decided to move back leftward.

One participant understood well that the big impediment to progress toward BI/GLI right now was the lack of a coherent movement toward it. She has talked to politicians. She says that they tell her, in effect, “you guys are fucked! You are fragmented and all over the place”. Her message was; ” There has to be one ask!”

The response around the table was in effect, “oh, no, we have to have many points of view”. This sounds a lot like Fair Vote Canada. I, on the other hand, will likely title my next big paper on BI/GLI, ” One Ask!”

It was thought that perhaps coming up with a “vision statement” would help. As an old activist I once worked with would have said, “don’t get a vision statement, get yourself a vision”. There are enough arguments and enough ideas, someone said. The thing is to choose some and go with them.

There was discussion of whether we need to hold meetings regularly. I noted that while work does not happen at meetings, meetings are where work is organized. Or at least, should be.

There were concerns about poor communications between different groups. Someone was a big fan of nation builder. I hated to sound like a know it all, but I opined that nation builder was useless; just enough platform for internet chatter.

It was agreed that we are not communicating well. Someone noted that we keep getting confused with the “raise the minimum wage” people.

Someone wanted to get the names and numbers of BI groups across Canada. Someone else pointed out that there is already such a list; on the BICN web site. Communications, communications. Focus, focus.

There was some discussion of the mission statement. Someone thought it was a bit “run on”. These things tend to be so. They decided to leave that for now.

Toward the end we got down to some ideas for potential actions. Someone wanted a “word by word” letter campaign for city hall endorsement. This involved identifying sympathetic councilors.

Someone talked about organizing on campuses. I have had some experiences with campus organizing, and not good ones. Believe it or not, university students are notoriously hard to mobilize. A better approach would be toward campus organizations. They might want to join and also kick some funding our way.

We adjourned and went home agreeing to hold more meetings. We agreed that future meetings will be held the third tuesday of each month, which will make the next one June 21st. We have no venue for the next meeting.

To sum it all up, these are not unintelligent people. All seem to have university educations. But they are mostly quite young. What strikes me is the lack of know how about running even the simplest organization. There is something wrong with the education system.

It reminds me of Jane Jacob’s statement in “Dark Times Ahead”. People seem to be forgetting how to do things. What we need is some training. Also, a filling in of some startling gaps in general knowledge.

We shall see how it goes. And at least we have something going.

TR May 28, 2016

About the BICN congress in Winnipeg; setting the scene

red river

It is now a week since I got back from Windypeg from the NABIG conference. It is about time I got busy writing about it and preparing some followup. I have already scheduled a meeting at Ralph Thornton on June 5 to deliver a talk on the event.

bitch, bitch, bitch

There is an awful lot to write about. I filled up a notebook with it and there were so many sessions I missed. I would like to have gone to them all but we had split sessions. There were so many people with presentations of one kind or another that we would have to have either excluded many of them or had an unmanageably long conference.

Four days is getting to be too much. Even the 2014 congress, with people from all over the world, was only three days. Jurgen, who organized that one, had some criticisms of this one. He suggested not starting at 8 am in the morning, in respect of us who “do not have roosters in our ancestry”.

The venue was much criticized. They always hold these events on university campuses, McGill in Montreal and U of T in Toronto in 2012. These two were sidewalk universities downtown. There are plenty of cheap food and accommodations options. They are accessible to transportation hubs.

The University of Manitoba is way out in the south of the city in a bend of the good old Red River. It took an hour and a half to get there by Winnipeg transit from the airport. There was a total lack of food options after hours and on the weekends. Even during business hours, all we had was the food court at the student center.

They had to pull some money from a reserve fund and bring us in some donuts on Saturday and Sunday morning. At least we got some chow at lunch, unlike the Montreal event where I had to resort to the Subways© next door.

The weather was not great. I hear it was not so good in Toronto while I was gone, either. But we had some snow and we learned why they call it Windypeg. Yet they told us that it had been quite toasty in the Peg until we showed up.

Unlike U of Toronto, which goes all year round, U of Manitoba seems to partly shut down in the summer. The campus was a somber place and we had to hike all the way across it from the dorms they put us it. The geese seemed to rule there and we had to watch out for the goose shit.

The interior climate was not great, either. This was held in the Law faculty building, which seems to have the kind of heating/air conditioning system which does not adjust well to changes in weather. It got hot and humid in the lecture halls. We had conflicts between those who wanted to prop the doors open to get some air, and who did not want the noise from the hallways. “Air! Air!”

what I did there

I did my own presentation, on what needs to be done to get a serious movement going for a BI in Canada. I said several things that I knew would be controversial to many people, but my shtick was well received.

A bit later I suggested that it was not a good idea to try to sell Basic Income as a way to get people to accept “climate change” measures. I suggested that the premise of climate change was not as universally accepted as many “left” oriented people seem to think, even among left/progressive people, and there is no reason to offend these people while promoting the BI. For that reason, I said, I wanted people to get my point and not make me have to get into a refutation of “climate change”.

So I did not get lynched by any climate fanatics. Later a few people came up and agreed with me not just about not getting into needless arguments, but about climate change being a hooey!

Another suggestion for holding the next one of these was more time for people to talk and circulate. A lot of information exchange, not to mention real organizing, got done out in the hallway.

This is how I finally managed to run into a few people from the Toronto area who have been working on BI as well. Maybe now we can all get together and get something to happen at home. There are active groups in Waterloo, Hamilton, and Kingston. But big T.O. is a big dead zone for BI activities. So is Ottawa, it seems.

Another example of snack table organizing is when I cornered Senator Art Eggleton. I originally wanted to chide him about his refusal to come to an event I wanted to get going. He had written back snarking that we should stop talking to the believers and start organizing.

I suggested that before organizing anything we had to actually get some people together, and an event with a ‘big name’ in Basic Income circles, like Eggie, could do that. Or Evelyn Forget, by the way, but she has now moved back to Winnipeg. She said she did not like the house prices in Toronto.

But Jurgen walked by. I got another idea. “Hello Jurg. Come here and meet Art Eggleton. He’s a senator. Isn’t that cool?”

“Well, Senator sir, this is Jurgen De Wispaleare. He is originally from Belgium. He is on the board of BICN. He’s got a job designing the Finnish BI pilot project.”

Sure enough, they got talking and I faded out, mightily pleased with myself. I knew what Jurgen would tell him about setting up pilot projects.

the fun parts

One worthwhile feature of the congress was that we all got a bus trip to the Winnipeg Aboriginal Community Center for a lecture on the problems of discrimination against aboriginals, poverty on reserves, and BI as a possible solution to some of this. The Crees, Ojibways, Ojicrees, Lakotas, Ashinabes and etc., so they claim, all had a form of Basic Income before white people came along and messed their world up so thoroughly.

We got some demonstrations of aboriginal arts and culture. I was impressed by the dance school. As with most folk forms of dance, there is more to it that just hopping around. The hoop dances especially require some impressive coordination. As for those who think aboriginal drumming and singing all sounds the same, they do not listen closely.

On the last day, we got invited to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, which happens to be in Winnipeg. Oh, yes, everybody is talking about BI now as primarily a human rights issue. I decided I was getting short of money anyway and I did not want to risk missing my flight.

I might rather have gone because Sheila Regehr was effusive about her visit to the human rights center when I chatted her a bit at the airport departures salon. I ended up spending a lot of time there because I booked a late flight, worried about the precedent from Montreal, when the final meeting went way over time.

the inadequacy of BICN

And once again, the thing which impressed me the least about the event was the business meeting, the Annual General Meeting, at the end. A few of the attendees I ended up sitting with at the departures lounge agreed with me. The meeting was “technically inadequate”.

I know what the real problem is. Within the BICN movement, nationally and internationally, there is a strong substrate of people with a “left Libertarian” mentality. In addition, you have a kind of founder effect similar to what I saw with Fair Vote Canada.

The executive committee is dominated by people who do not want any kind of formal structure. They also tend to be academics. They want only a metaphysical debate on whether various modes of BI violate Rawlesian equality theories. They are focussed totally on these congresses every two years, so they can read their papers at each other.

Many activist types of BI people are getting fed up with this and are demanding some structure and transparency. They did not get it. About all that happened was the new board for the next two years was announced. It was not even explained how they were elected. This is even worse than the early Fair Vote Canada of even the TCHC representative council.

In the limited chances I got to talk with Shiela Regehr and Jenna Van Drannen, they seem frustrated by this. These two do most of the real work of the organization as chair and secretary and get a small stipend. I joked with Sheila about being in the army of Oz; twenty generals and one private. She chuckled and admitted to being much overworked.

Sheila and Jenna are trying to develop this advisory council of people involved with local organizing to act as some kind of alternative or auxiliary to the executive council. I indicated I want to be part of this council. I sent in the form. Jenna says she never got it and was dismayed.

possible solutions

At least they have more or less the right idea about reforming BICN from within. That is, to use the old FVC model, which finally moved the ivory tower faction out of the way, at least a bit. They hated the idea of local organizations but these developed anyway and eventually forced FVC to open up. The message was, “come on, if we are going to promote democratic reform we have to be open and democratic ourselves.”

I think there is plenty of time to build up a nation wide network of BI/GLI groups and develop a clear idea of what we are really after. Right now there is excitement about BI but people are not really understanding it. Local governments are adopting it so as not to have to talk about minimum wages. Ontario is talking about a pilot in order to freeze anti poverty discussion.

I notice that there are cycles of about 15 years in guaranteed income interest. This interest always fades away because there is no effective organization from below to create real push for it. As a famous sociologist said, there has never been a social advance without a social movement to bring it about.

We need a strong organization, and what we have now are left libertarian types who are opposed to any kind of structure. This is what anarchism and libertarianism are really about; keeping it secret about who is really in control and what they think is best for everybody.

So, this is what the job is; building a powerful movement. In fact, building a new political party. This is going to take a long struggle because the biggest talkers about an income guarantee do not want this; they are the big enemies of achieving an income guarantee.

In my subsequent bloggings about all the wind from Windypeg I will have much to say about the internal debates and conflicts around this.