Canadians Watch and Worry as Social System Loses Ground Canada's Social Safety Net - Universal Health Care, Welfare, and Unemployment Insurance - Has Long Been Tied to the Country's Self-Image. Some Observers Worry Both May Be Fraying - Part 3 in a Series

Article excerpt

THERE'S an old joke in Canada that when United States President George Bush remarked that he favored a "kinder, gentler" nation, Canadians thought at first he was talking about them.

That one-liner about this nation's self-image still has a lot of resonance for many Canadians who, divided though they may be on how to remake their country's Constitution, still agree that their commitment to helping the sick, the elderly, and the less fortunate is a difference distinguishing them from Americans.

For the many here who identify Canada closely with its social safety net - universal health care, welfare, and unemployment insurance - tighter budgets have meant that the quality of compassion defining them as Canadians is growing strained.

"The Canadian way of thinking is that they take care of their most vulnerable - it's part of their self image," says Susan Cox, a transplanted Australian who helps direct the Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. "But there's been a policy in the last 10 years to cut back. Welfare payments simply haven't kept up with inflation. Things are rapidly getting worse and the safety net is giving way."

Even so, Nagiba Robleh, a Somalian refugee, is glad to be in Canada. Sitting on the floor of her nearly empty one-bedroom apartment in Toronto, Ms. Robleh counts herself fortunate to be one of those caught by Canada's wide but increasingly taut safety net.

"I'm calm now, but getting here was difficult because of the war," says Robleh, who was pregnant when she left Mogadishu, the battle-ravaged Somalian capital, more than a year ago. Using her family's life savings, she and her four-year-old travelled first to Kenya, Rome, New York, and Buffalo - and finally Toronto.

In Canada for only nine months, she does not yet have government permission to work. Instead, she and her two children survive on $1,147 (Canadian; US $952) per month in federally and provincially funded welfare, $700 of which pays the rent. The rest goes for food and baby supplies.

Still, at the end of each month, Robleh joins the 775,000 people across Canada who seek emergency food from private food banks, according to the Canadian Association of Food Banks.

In Toronto alone, in February, 147,000 people sought charitable food relief, up from 119,000 last February, according to the Daily Bread Food Bank, the country's largest. More than 340 communities across Canada now have food banks.

Yet Canada is hardly stingy. Its federal, provincial, and local governments spent more than $4,600 per Canadian last year to provide health care and social programs to its 26 million citizens - and the cost is rising.

More than 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) was spent on health and social services in fiscal 1980-81, rising to nearly 19 percent of GDP last year, according to Irene Ip, a policy analyst at the C. D. Howe Institute in Toronto. Health care accounted for a third, or $41 billion, of last year's total. The programs' rising costs are getting harder to bear for a nation struggling out of recession and trying to compete globally, Ms. Ip says.

YET any policy to cut health care and other social welfare costs is political dynamite in Canada, striking at an emotional touchstone for Canadians who have seen their sense of national unity suffer from rising regionalism and demands from Quebec and native peoples to be recognized as distinct.

With little left but their elaborate social safety net to show what the country as a whole stands for, many Canadians feel that even this previously firm ground is moving under them.

"The social safety net is in the process of being totally destroyed," says John Clarke, provincial organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, a coalition of 40 local antipoverty organizations. …


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