The Ford Fallout: “I had hope for the first time in a long time. Now I don’t know what I’ll do”

The Ford Fallout: “I had hope for the first time in a long time. Now I don’t know what I’ll do”

For Tracey Mechefske, Basic Income was a lifeline. She started a business, improved her diet and enrolled at a local gym. Then, without warning, Ford cancelled the entire program. Part 1 in our series

Photo by Vanessa Heins

The Ontario Basic Income Pilot was a program initiated by the Wynne Liberals and designed by former Conservative senator Hugh Segal. Each month, the government would give low-income residents a sum of money with no strings attached, then track how they fared. For Tracey Mechefske, Basic Income was a lifeline. She started a business, improved her diet and enrolled at a local gym. Then, without warning, Ford cancelled the entire program

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“The thing that I wish people would understand is that I’m not a mooch. I’m a taxpayer, and I want to be self-sufficient. I always hear that those of us who were part of the basic income pilot should shut up and get a job. I’ve had several jobs.

“I was born with two twisted tibias. When I was 15, I was in a snowmobile accident. I had surgery, but 25 years later, exacerbated by that accident, the twisted tibias began to give me mobility issues. I also have a sulphite allergy and serious gastrointestinal problems that cause me excruciating pain. When it’s bad, I can barely get out of bed.

“Despite all my physical problems, I was always a good student. I went to the University of Nipissing intending to do a double major in history and psychology with a minor in ancient religion. I enjoyed school, but by the end of first year, my stomach problems made keeping up with the workload impossible. It was a similar story when I tried college the following year, so I worked in retail, but eventually I needed too many sick days and I was let go. I went on disability in 1993.

“My husband, Kurt, and I got married three years later. Soon after that, one of his relatives couldn’t take care of their 15-month-old son, so we became foster parents, and I devoted myself to raising him while my husband worked. He’s a trained small-engine mechanic but had trouble finding jobs in his field. He worked as a baker at Tim Hortons, and as a deliveryman at a couple of pizza spots, but then our car died. Between us, we didn’t have much, but we were getting by. We were really careful about money, and in 2012, after three years in social housing, we had put enough away for a down payment on a house.

“Around the time we moved in, to cope with my sulphite allergy, I started making homemade products, like all-natural facial scrubs, dish soap and moisturizing creams. My friends tried them and loved them. I dreamed of starting my own business, but it’s difficult for people on disability to get small-business loans.

“Everything changed when I got accepted into the Basic Income Pilot. Every month, we got $2,803. I wrote up a business plan and took out a $15,000 line of credit to cover start-up costs—ingredients, packaging, legal fees, advertising—and to cover booths at fairs and trade shows. The great thing was that as a small-business owner, I was able to work around my disabilities. I could work a lot when I was feeling well and take a day off when I wasn’t. I felt a sense of possibility that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. Things took off pretty quickly. A few months in, I had regular customers as far away as North Bay, and the gift shop at Beaver River Museum signed on to carry my products. I was making the monthly $500 payment on my line of credit. There wasn’t a ton left over—anyone who thinks Basic Income recipients are rolling in dough is way off. But my husband and I were able to buy fresh fruit and vegetables, visit his parents in North Bay, go to the movies—Spider-Man: Homecoming was my favourite—which was something I hadn’t been able to afford in a long time. We were also able to pay $25 for a monthly gym membership. I swam in the pool every day and saw a major improvement in my legs and my overall health.

“I was living the start-up life. Everything I earned from my business was going back into my business, and I had a financial plan that would lead to profitability within three years, just as the Basic Income Pilot was set to end. If things had continued the way they were going, I would have paid off my line of credit and hopefully had enough to get off disability. I timed it perfectly—or so I thought.

“On the campaign trail, Ford promised he wasn’t going to terminate the program early, which was a huge relief. But then he got elected and did just that. I got my last cheque in March and quickly realized I wasn’t going to be able to continue with my business. I couldn’t pay for supplies and make my line-of-credit payment. Now I’m stuck with a loan that I never would have taken out if I didn’t have the Basic Income Pilot. I am behind on my payments, and it’s going to collections. My credit rating will be seriously hurt.

“To get by, my husband and I are going to the food bank. We’re running out of heating oil, and I don’t know where we’re going to get the money to buy more for winter. The bank suggested refinancing our home to make the payments, but I’m terrified that will mean losing our house before too long. My disability payments and my husband’s minimum wage are not enough to keep us above water. It’s so frustrating because everything was going so well. Basic income isn’t a handout; it’s giving people the chance to make something of themselves, to get out of dead-end situations. I had so much hope. Now I don’t know what I’ll do.”