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. "They've attacked specific programs, housing, and unemployment insurance by eroding the system of federal transfers to provinces, so that this year here in Ontario in health, education, and social assistance, there is $4.5 billion less in federal transfer payments."
Provinces complain that the federal government shortchanged them more than $8 billion for medicare and other costs in fiscal 1991-1992. The government has picked up half of the cost of health care and other services since the 1960s, but in 1990 capped at 5 percent the rate of increase of federal transfers to Alberta, Ontario, and British Columbia. The impact on Medicare is most worrisome to many. "Medicare is like water to Canadians, it's our identity," says Maude Barlow, an activist who opposes free tra de with the US.
Provinces and local governments have been forced, so far in small ways, to reduce Medicare services. Quebec recently eliminated free eye exams. Lines are longer. Hospitals have cut nurses and other staff.
"Health care, more than any other social program, has become an important part of how Canadians see themselves," says Keith Banting, a professor of policy studies at Queens University in Kingston, Ontario. "So far Medicare has been eroded in ways that public cannot see in demonstrable ways. They hear that service has been eroded, that waits are longer, but can't see it yet."
But at least at the fringes of Canadian society, the tears in the net are visible. "We've started to get women coming for clothing," says Bonnie MacKenzie, a worker at the Young St. Mission in Toronto. "We're serving the whole family now. It's a new crowd."
Sandra Hanlon is a young, single mother living with her boyfriend. Both are looking for work, and she has come to the Young St. Mission to get some food and clothing for her child.
"This is the first time I've been here in four months," she says. "I usually don't like to come to these places."
Elizabeth Leake, director of the mission, says the recession has hit heavily industrialized Ontario hard. "I think we're seeing the working poor. Money's tight and people at the lower end of the scale and those with fixed incomes are feeling it," she says. "There's too much month left at the end of their money."
Though Ms. Cox, at the food bank, says charitable work is necessary, her satisfaction has a subtle raw edge; she and others say they are doing more emergency work because Canada's government has failed in its commitment to Canadians hit by recession and 11 percent unemployment.
`IN Canada, more than in the US, charities tend to resent government dumping stuff back on them," Cox says. "In Canada we would duke anybody that called us one of the thousand points of light."
Inevitably, she says, the pressure on Canada to be more like the US has troubled many Canadians and has made them wonder if being a Canadian really means taking care of your own - or leaving them to fend for themselves.
Although observers dispute whether Canada is losing its sense of caring, pointing to the prosperity and security that comforts most Canadians, others say the national self-examination is fundamental and will continue until most are satisfied Canada is something more than a historical coincidence of peoples and provinces. Meanwhile, the nation's newcomers say they have found something unique in the world.
"I want to learn English, to work, and to live in Canada," says Nagiba Robleh, the Somalian refugee. "It was better than the others. Here it is better than Kenya. I'm in Canada now - and it's good, it's fine."
Last in a series. Parts 1 and 2 appeared July 1 and July 3.