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Basic income chronicles: Financial stability, formal education, would have changed woman’s life path

By Roderick Benns

Living in poverty in northeastern New Brunswick wasn’t the hardest thing Maggie Olscamp had to experience while growing up in the 1950s – it was watching her father leave home to find work out of province to help support them.

Her father — an artist, draughtsman, and cartographer — sometimes found work in Goose Bay, Labrador, or Tilt Cove in Newfoundland. Sometimes it was among the Inuit in Canada’s far north.

It wasn’t the fact of poverty itself, but rather consequences like this that left its real mark.

“Poverty is relative. There were always some who were worse off than we were,” Olscamp, now 69, says. “The hardest thing was seeing my father having to go away to find work.”

As a young girl of about eight or nine, Olscamp recalls she told her grandmother that she was going to be an artist when she grew up. Years later, a first place win in the Canada-wide Canadian Forestry Association Forest Fire prevention contest anchored this belief further, when she was 14.

In Grade 10, Olscamp entered her high school’s ‘industrial program.’ All she really wanted was the drafting program, but she was also exposed to electrical, machine shop, and motor mechanics.

“Up to that time, no female had been allowed into the industrial program in any Canadian school. My drawings, plus the fact that the department head respected my father’s work, convinced them to let me in.”

She spent her summer studying books they used in the department. Boys had been taking industrial arts since Grade 7, “and I had…a lot of catching up to do,” she says.

She recalls that in the fall her marks were the highest in the class and all the boys in the class treated her with respect. But she had to leave school in the middle of Grade 10 for personal reasons — partly to do with a teacher and partly because her mother was ill and needed help at home.

“I believe I would eventually have become an architect had things been different back then,” she reflects.

With her high school education interrupted, this stunted her college and university path early on. Throughout her life she would hold a myriad of odd jobs and positions in both New Brunswick, Ontario, and the United States. Such jobs included being a waitress, bookkeeper, seamstress, retail clerk, and helping with her husband’s business, among many others. This was always in addition to working on her art career on the side, which remains a constant companion.

Although she later attended university as a mature student, financial and family circumstances always seem to conspire against finishing her course work. She got married and had two children and says that “during all the years of struggle to be financially independent and to build a career” for herself, she tried to be “the best mother I could to my two children.”

“That they have grown into exceptional people is my greatest joy.”

Olscamp believes that part of the consequences of her life’s directional arc is that she now lives on less than $10,000 per year. Her partner receives a little bit more. They live along Chaleur Bay in northeastern New Brunswick, an area she believes has been forgotten by most, once there was no longer a pressing need for the natural resources that fed hungry government coffers for most of a century.

“As long as our mines and mill were operating, at least some of my fellow citizens had good jobs,” she tells Leaders and Legacies. “Some were able to travel away to get a decent education. Some were not.”

A Basic Income Guarantee

Olscamp wonders if a basic income guarantee policy had existed how it might have changed things, both for her family and herself. While there are many models of how to set up a basic income policy, many feel that a guaranteed annual income of $18,000 to $20,000 for individuals would be the threshold to keep people out of poverty.

“Financial independence would definitely have led me down a different path. I would have been able to afford a formal education…I would certainly have lived my life as a respected professional instead of being regarded as a high-school dropout who never held down a steady job…” she says.

Today, she and her partner share a modest house on the edge of town and one car. She restricts herself to going into town only three days a week to work in her downtown art studio, which is open to the public.

“It is an old building in need of repair and much too costly to heat in winter — otherwise I might move there.”

Her income derived from her art in her lifetime would be very modest, she says, and that “what I’ve sold over the years would not come close to what I have spent in material and supplies.”

Nonetheless, her studio is “pretty well the extent of my social life,” Olscamp says. “If I could afford taxis I would participate in community cultural events. I try not to complain too much about this because I know I’m not the only senior who lives such an existence. Many others have tried to convince themselves that Facebook is a substitute for real human contact but I don’t think so.”

Olscamp says she is certain that she “would have fared much better” in life if she had received some sort of basic Income that she could have called her own. She believes each individual person should receive the same basic income and then let Revenue Canada make adjustments. “Revenue Canada can iron out who gets to keep their cheque and who gets  clawed back.”

When asked how a basic income guarantee from the government set at $1500 per month ($18,000 per year) might change her life, Olscamp says that she would have “fewer concerns and more choices.”

She notes that, among other things, she would:

  • not be worried about money running out and bills not being paid
  • invest in solar heating and not worry about finding wood to heat the house during winter
  • pay off the mortgage
  • eat better
  • give nice graduation gifts to her two grandchildren who are going off to college in September
  • see a dentist
  • get new glasses every couple of years
  • go to an opera, ballet, orchestra, or see a play occasionally
  • travel to participate in art and music workshops
  • move closer to downtown Bathurst and become involved with the local museum, exercise classes, and the few cultural events that are held locally
  • outfit a proper studio with storage room for supplies and artworks and display and where I could hold art and music events

Olscamp says she has never been in a situation where she felt financially secure and independent, throughout her years of child-rearing, followed by years of chronic unemployment.

“I speak  from long experience when I say that a basic income for every citizen should be a  basic human right.”



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