Ryan Tonkin

Study program:
Current affiliation:
University of Victoria

Ryan Tonkin (philosophy, University of Victoria) is examining the philosophical and legal justifications for tax proposals aimed at alleviating income inequality in Canada’s democratic, multicultural context.

Doctoral research

Democratizing distributive justice: Public reason and the law of taxation

Income inequality is reaching historic levels and is one of the foremost challenges facing our nation. Our primary tool for fairly allocating the benefits and burdens of social cooperation is the law of taxation. Therefore, an important function of the Canadian tax system is to implement society’s conception of distributive justice. As a multicultural and ideologically diverse nation, however, Canada is confronted with a wide variety of reasonable but conflicting views of what distributive justice requires.

The doctrine of public reason emerged in response to this fact of reasonable disagreement. It proposes that in certain contexts, the legitimacy of state action cannot depend on a narrow view of the truth. Rather, political legitimacy demands something different: a justification in terms that are acceptable to those affected.

Ryan’s research project will extend this requirement of public reason to tax law and policy. He believes that a public-reason account of tax policy promises to provide novel insights and a rich basis for redressing current injustices.

Ryan Tonkin is a passionate advocate for social change. He has spent the last decade combining his experience as a street-entrenched youth with his formal education to improve the lives of people facing barriers of all kinds. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Victoria, and a juris doctor from Harvard Law School.

Ryan always aims at transforming social policy. He developed evaluative analytics for an innovative mental health court in Boston, recommendations for legislative reform in Sierra Leone, and assessments of the community benefits of several US hospitals under the Affordable Care Act. His work in British Columbia advocates for people in poverty, particularly those with mental health-related disabilities and those at risk of homelessness. Recently, this focus has seen Ryan direct his efforts at low-cost, high-impact platforms that employ community resources to facilitate social cooperation. For example, as a Public Service Venture Fellow, he founded the Federal Disability Advocacy Project, which trained people in poverty with disabilities to help one another, recovering hundreds of thousands of dollars in refunds and ongoing benefits.

Ryan’s current position is directing the Justice as Fairness Society, an outreach-based legal advocacy group. He also offers public legal education at Vancouver Island’s largest homeless shelter. His work with people with disabilities led to his joining Fighting for Fairness, through which he seeks to reform Canada’s Disability Tax Credit. Ryan’s work on homelessness caused him to serve as a director for Homeless Partners, an online platform that connects homeless people with donors and assists Syrian refugees.

Ryan sees literacy as an essential tool in political transformation and poverty reduction. As a result, he is a member of the Victoria Literacy Task Group, which guides the implementation of the community literacy plan. He has also worked with at-risk youth at Cornerstone Youth Society and the Boston Debate League. Ryan works with palliative patients on the clinical unit of Victoria Hospice Society. He is enthusiastic about pursuing social policy reform through an analysis of the law of taxation and redistribution.