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
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