Hugh Segal, basic income champion, would want others to carry baton for him, say supporters

By Roderick Benns

Hugh Segal, perhaps Canada’s most ardent defender of a basic income policy to lift people out of poverty, has died at 72.

A Kingston resident, Segal was born in Montreal. His career included public service as chief of staff to prime minister Brian Mulroney and before that for Ontario premier Bill Davis. Former prime minister Paul Martin appointed him to the senate and later Segal would serve as principal of the University of Toronto’s Massey College.

The cause of his life was certainly to see the creation of a basic income policy accessible for all Canadians.

For Sheila Regehr, chair of the Basic Income Canada Network (BICN), “the basic income movement in Canada and the world has lost a true champion, and many of us have lost a friend.”

She recalls in earlier days Segal was often a lone voice for a guaranteed income on Parliament Hill. “But he worked across party lines and with civil society. Then, as basic income organizations began to form and a movement grew, he was so generous with his time, wisdom and support for others who shared his goals for an end to poverty and a decent life for everyone.”

His willingness to work with the opposition is something former prime minister Brian Mulroney remembers, telling CBC News he used to say Segal “had the patience of a gardener, because he’d work slowly and kindly with the opponents … He was a wonderful human being, and it was a great privilege, a high privilege for me to know him as well as I did and to work with him.”

Rob Rainer, a long-time basic income advocate and the reeve of Tay Valley Township, called Segal “a fine, fine human being and a truly great Canadian, in addition to being an indefatigable champion of basic income and relentless foe of poverty.”

“It was from him that I first ever heard the phrase ‘guaranteed annual income,’ said Rainer, “and from that moment he inspired me to contribute to the cause. He no doubt inspired countless others in his lifetime, which is such a testament to the strength of his character.”

Elaine Power is a professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, Queen’s University. She says Segal “leaves behind a huge hole in the basic income movement in Canada.”

“Hugh is an inspiration in his dedication to alleviating poverty and its associated shame, suffering, and indignities. One of my favourite memories of Hugh is the first time I met him, back in 2010, after his 2009 senate report, In from the Margins, co-authored with retired senator Art Eggleton.”

Power said Segal came to her class on the social determinants of health, with approximately 400 undergraduate students, to talk about why poverty is a blight on our society and how we could fix it.

“They are a tough audience, and Hugh had them in the palm of his hand, striding up and down the aisles, not a note in sight, eloquent, articulate, passionate. It was one of the most powerful oratory performances I’ve had the pleasure of witnessing.”

Fast forward to May 2022, and Power says Hugh was at the microphone at the Basic Income Now march in Toronto, rallying the troops to vote for MPPs who support basic income during the Ontario election. “He was indefatigable, and I will miss him very much.”

For Regehr, she says Segal was both “eloquent and bluntly honest when it was needed, wickedly funny at times, and always compassionate.”

“Hugh so very much wanted to see a basic income guarantee realized in his lifetime; it is terribly sad that he’s among the good guys who die too soon. Our work to make basic income a reality will continue, and it will be a tribute to his legacy.”

Rainer agreed, saying “a great way to honour him now will be to continue to pursue basic income specifically and social justice generally, taking the baton that he has passed to us.”

Power said the political environment “would be so much more functional, effective, and engaging if politicians had taken lessons from Hugh. They don’t make politicians like him anymore.”

“I am especially sad that Hugh did not live to see a permanent basic income for working age adults in Canada. We will carry on in his memory, to realize his dream of a more just and caring Canada, where no one need suffer the indignities of poverty. His memory is a blessing to us in the basic income movement.”