Between unpredictable weather, variable catch yields, fluctuating prices, and highly seasonal work, access to a steady and sustainable income has long been an issue for those employed in the fisheries sector in Newfoundland and Labrador—and across Canada.So when the 4th World Small-Scale Fisheries Congress: North America convened in St. John’s at the Delta Hotel this week, one panel on Monday explored the idea of implementing a basic income in the fisheries sector.
Kristen Lowitt, an assistant professor at the school of Environmental Studies at Queen’s University and one of the panel’s organizers, is a strong supporter of the idea. She has been working with Coalition Canada, a cross-country alliance of basic income advocacy groups, to help make a case for basic income in the fisheries sector in particular.
The panel was comprised of a variety of fisheries representatives from across the country from unions, and governments, to community members. The focus was to think about both large- and small-scale fisheries, and how to strengthen the livelihoods, regional economies, and food systems of coastal and Indigenous communities.
What a Basic Income Would Look Like
Josh Smee, CEO of Food First NL and member of Coalition Canada, told The Independent that the focus right now is not so much a universal basic income model, but rather a model that guarantees a minimum or basic income
“Just to say to everyone, you’d have a floor where no matter what is going on in your life, you would never fall below that floor,” he said.
Smee explained that the “floor” would be set at the poverty line. “People who are advocating for this want to see a more livable basic income” and therefore want to “push that floor as high as you can push it.”
“You shouldn’t have a social program that pushes people into poverty, which is what we have now.”
The poverty line can be determined by looking at the Market Basket Measure (MBM). The MBM is “a measure of low income based on the cost of a specific basket of goods representing a modest, basic standard of living, as defined by Statistics Canada.
According to Statistics Canada, in St. John’s the MBM total threshold in 2020 was $45,564 annually, while in rural Newfoundland and Labrador it was $43,214. This means that a family living under this threshold would be considered living in poverty.
The Need for a Basic Income in Indigenous Communities
Ryan Lauzon, one of the panel’s speakers and an employee of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, explained that the elders of his community say that once upon a time “the white fish were so numerous you could walk on their backs.” However, since the settlers arrived and introduced commercial fishing, over-fishing depleted resources for First Nation communities.
Lauzon argued that a basic income would not only support the local fishing economy, it would also generate greater ecological sustainability, sustainIndigenous culture by encouraging young people to work in the fishery, and help maintain food sovereignty in Indigenous communities by ensuring access to cultural foods.
The Problem with EI
Another panelist, Sonia Strobel, the co-founder and CEO of Skipper Otto Community Supported Fishery, highlighted that the Employment Insurance system for the fisheries is not good enough because it is based on how much you earn from fishing. The reality is that supply is not always certain due to factors like overfishing and climate change.
Strobel described working on the water as a “gamble” because of this uncertainty of supply, stating: “Is it worth the gamble to persist in this way of life?”
“Basic income means people do not have to make that gamble,” she said.
The “Welfare Trap”
Panelist Rick Williams, director of the Canadian Council of Professional Fish Harvesters, highlighted that in Canada, fisher harvesters on average earn 52 percent of their income from fishing—with 21 percent of their income being earned from EI.
The biggest issue for fish harvesters is the challenge of seasonality. Williams emphasized that almost 70 percent of fish harvesters have no fishing income for at least half or more of the year.
There are however, some problems with basic income programs according to Williams. He told The Independent that “the basic income program the coalition is proposing is great for the people who will never work, such as those with long-term disabilities,” but “for the working poor, if you create a system that offers a trade-off between low-wage work and a fallback welfare program, people will not take the low-wage work.”
“The danger is the welfare trap that we’ve seen with provincial welfare programs,” he said.
However, Williams emphasizes that because of fishery closures and the seasonal nature of working in the fisheries, “we need a base security measure for the people who do not qualify for [Employment Insurance].”
The Myth of Workers not Wanting to Work
Staff Representative with FFAW-Unifor, Alyse Stuart, pointed out that the arguments against basic income— workers don’t want to work, that CERB is why workplaces cannot get workers, and that we can’t afford “handouts”—are all myths.
In the fisheries, the work is seasonal—not the workers.
In rural areas, fishing communities are deeply integrated with EI, because there is no other work outside of fishing(except for “maybe a Tim Hortons an hour away,” Stuart joked).
Unifor has been working to fix the EI system, Stuart said, because right now it is not enough. This has included advocating to reform and modernize the benefits by reducing claw backs to EI claims and making EI easier to use. The pandemic also meant that a lot of people lost work and therefore were not covered by EI.
Stuart explained that currently, a maximum EI claim (before tax) is $638—which is not enough to live.
Climate change will also generate more barriers to income. With extreme weather changes, some people may not be able to fish for the full length of a traditional season.
Despite common myths such as “the government cannot afford handouts,” Stuart countered that “we cannot afford to not support the people of this country.”
A basic income program would have to be responsive to the people they are trying to help and would need to have a worker-centred approach that doesn’t penalize workers for going to work, she concluded.
“It’s something we love to do”
For Chelsie Kook-Marche, the Mayor of Port au Port West-Aguathuna-Felix Cove, fishing is her and her husband’s life. As a family, they have worked hard to turn their fishery into an enterprise. But she explains that the income generated from fishing alone was not enough to raise a family and pay for childcare.
Kook-Marche believes a basic income would help with those costs.
Kook-Marche’s father-in-law has had his fishing license since he was 14 (for which he paid only 25 cents). Her in-laws fished for over 50 years, but because the work was seasonal, they had to work for their EI and often struggled to do so.
“When you fish, you can’t guarantee your catch, and you can’t guarantee your prices,” she said. “But you can guarantee we will be on the water.”
Kook-Marche’s husband is a third generation fisherman—so you can’t get him off the water, despite the challenges.
“For us, it’s something we love to do,” she stated.
For fish harvesters, it’s basic: they want to fish, and they want the means to survive. And as far as the panel is concerned, a basic income program represents a promising way to make that happen.
Follow Abby on Twitter.
Did you enjoy this article? Fund more like it, and support the future of journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador.
UPDATE, 24 June 2022: An earlier version of this article described Ryan Lauzon as a member of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation. In fact, Lauzon is an employee of the First Nation, not a member. The Independent regrets this error.