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'Morphing' Social-Safety Net Is Reshaping Canada's Image

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John Wright, a pollster with the Angus Reid Group, says Canadian values are indeed changing - along with their sense of their own identity.

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"Most Canadians today have identified themselves with our health-care and social-safety net," he says. "When these hallmarks of Canadianism are either changed or eliminated, it raises the fundamental question: 'Who are we?' " For a new generation of Canadians entering the work force, the answer to that question sounds a lot more, well, American, than it used to.

"I was raised with all these social programs to protect me," says Terri Price, a chemical engineer two years out of her graduate program. "But I've had to adapt lately to a tough job market. And I've grown into the belief that I have to look out for myself. I accept the fact that these [programs] won't be the same as they were."

With Canada's changed economic fortunes, a belief in self sufficiency began replacing a historical reliance on government. In the 1980s, Canada's rising deficits did not register a blip of public concern. That began to change in 1989, when former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney began cutting government programs. About 5 percent of Canadians then considered cutting deficits a top priority.

After Canada's recession began in 1991, deficit-cutting rose higher in public opinion polls until 48 percent of Canadians saw it as the nation's top priority in early 1995. Today, 25 percent of Canadians say deficits are the biggest problem - fourth on the list. Unemployment is first.

"We have a real class differentiation," pollster Wright says. "One-third of Canadians hate government spending. Another third loves it. Another third, in the middle, will be on [one or the other] side depending on how you spin the issue."

Right now the middle third wants to cut. And the political impact has tilted every provincial government to the conservative right fiscally.

Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chrtien campaigned in 1993 on a platform of job creation, but has long since backed off make-work programs, instead aggressively slashing the federal payroll. In May, the International Monetary Fund hailed Canada for its fiscal discipline

Deficit cutting, especially in the nation's most heavily populated province, Ontario, has polarized its heavily unionized work force and the conservative government of Premier Michael Harris.

John Clarke, organizer for the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, says deficits are just a vehicle for big business to lower wages.

"The effect of welfare cuts has been to make many destitute," he says. "It has put many others into the most exploitative jobs. Without a social safety net, workers are at the mercy of business."

He and other activists say Canada's social safety net is changing into something Canadians have long loathed - the patchwork approach to social welfare found in the United States. But for young professionals like Ms. Price, the threat of losing a key component of Canada's old identity to new uncertainties is really beside the point.

"I'm not depending on government, on welfare, or on the social-safety net," she says. "I'm adjusting my dreams. I'm depending on myself."