Cool Canadians Heat Up Over Cuts

'Newt of the North' chops Ontario's 'gravy train' social spending

TAKING a page out of the Republican congressional playbook, Ontario Premier Michael Harris is whacking away at North America's most comprehensive social safety net - and sparking near-riots among normally placid Canadians.

Mr. Harris, whose Progressive Conservative Party was elected in June, has been dubbed the ''Newt of the North'' by friends and critics for his conservative, business-backed, deficit-cutting agenda.

But unlike House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia - who has called for a seven-year, $270 billion cut in projected US Medicare spending - Mr. Harris's call for $4.5 billion (C$6 billion) in cuts in social programs has provoked a surprisingly visceral public reaction.

On Sept. 27, for example, a crowd of 5,000 people gathered outside the provincial parliament in Toronto, protesting a 22 percent cut in benefits to welfare recipients. Police officers in riot gear waited, three deep, outside the main entrance. When the crowd surged and a barricade fell, police began using pepper spray and billy clubs on the protesters.

''I had never seen anything like it in Canada,'' says Gaetan Heroux, a social worker at the protest. ''What is this country coming to?''

While Harris's many detractors call him ''Mike the Knife'' for his budget-cutting prowess, admirers say he is doing a tough but necessary job.

''He's making an effort to bring our deficit under control,'' says William Francis, a Toronto lawyer. ''As far as I'm concerned, he should just storm right over those protests.''

So far, Mr. Harris has done just that. He has announced specific budget cuts of up to $1.4 billion.

Besides welfare, the cuts so far include at least 10 hospitals; public-transit lines; services for the disabled; education subsidies; legal aid for the poor; publicly funded day care; 385 nonprofit housing projects; and 25 halfway houses, with their tenants going back to jail.

It took 14 pages to list the cuts, and there are more to come. But beside the many cuts, Harris also promises a 30 percent income-tax cut. Critics say it is being financed by cutting social programs that help the poor.

''Our 'drop-in' [for homeless people] has been hit hard,'' says Ruth Mott, executive director of Central Neighborhood House here. ''We depend on funding that's been cut three years in a row. And these new cuts will hit us, too.''

For his part, Harris says he is only doing what he was elected to do. ''They're the people, I guess, who like the status quo, who liked the government of ... big spending,'' Harris told reporters, referring to the Sept. 27 protesters. ''We, quite frankly, believe we were elected to change that.... This is not a question of caring. In fact, we do care.''

Ontario is Canada's richest and most populous province. Yet it has been running a $740 million annual deficit and is more than $75 billion in debt. Harris has promised $3 billion more in cuts over the next three years and to balance the provincial budget by 2001.

But the result of the cuts, according to some analysts, is an emerging polarization along class lines between a white-collar middle class squeezed by taxes and the blue-collar squeezed by recession and high unemployment. That polarization has worsened as some Harris aides have sounded indifferent to human misery - even as they announced cuts.

David Tsubouchi, minister of social services, suggested, for example, that welfare recipients could make ends meet by trying to find discounted cans of tuna to make food last through the month on a slimmer welfare check.

''Canadians have had a language of politics that has been relatively gentle, even if government budgets were tough,'' says Frank Stark, a professor at the University of Guelph. ''What we have in Ontario is a relatively new phenomenon, a government that is willing to be savage both in action and in speech.''

The result is conflict. On Oct. 12, about 200 people tried to force their way into a Kingston, Ontario, country club where Harris was speaking and were repelled by police.

While sitting on a podium in Kitchener, Ontario, Oct. 7, Harris was hit in the foot by an egg. In typical form, he barely reacted.

Still, with protests on the upswing, so is Harris's support in polls. ''I think you have to keep in mind who is throwing the eggs,'' says Stephen Hannington, a finance expert. ''It's a bunch of leftists and cry-baby socialists unhappy that they're not on the gravy train anymore.''

That battle promises to intensify as labor organizations, seething at reversals on advances of the past few years, join the social activists.

''We're not going to cooperate ... in the workplace and help them improve quality while they're cheerleading Harris to gut our legislation,'' says Buzz Hargrove, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union. ''We're mad. We've said publicly that if they repeal Bill 40 [which prohibits the hiring of nonunion replacement workers], then the fun is really going to start.''

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