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Suddenly everything is 'on sale' as Canada struggles to keep economy afloat

In the town of Elsa, a mining community in the Canadian north, the economic recession shaking this country has brought almost total collapse.

As elsewhere in Canada, unemployment is rapidly becoming the number one social woe. But Elsa is worse. With the local silver mine set to lay off almost all its 200 workers, the jobless rate in this Yukon Territory town will soon near 100 percent.

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''The town is closing down,'' said Tom Dickson, manager of the United Keno Hill Mines, which plans to remain inactive until currently low world silver prices revive. ''By the end of July, there will be absolutely nothing going on here,'' Mr. Dickson added.

Across Canada, the situation, while less acute, has the same ring of despair and disillusion as this usually prosperous nation teeters on the edge of a full-scale economic depression of a kind not seen since the 1930s.

Businessmen and farmers are going bankrupt at an unheard-of rate. The housing and construction industries are in trouble. Consumer and business confidence sinks lower and lower.

A succession of closures in manufacturing industries has created a new army of jobless. Among a workforce of 14 million, 1.3 million are out of jobs - 45 percent more than this time a year ago.

After decades of relative prosperity, the shock of a pronounced recession has left Canadians demoralized and uncertain about opportunities and expectations once taken for granted.

''I think it's sort of a lost cause,'' said a young Ottawa woman who had been searching in vain for a job in Toronto, where she is moving after her marriage next month. ''It's getting grim,'' she said, explaining that while personnel officers she sees in big companies would like to hire her, ''they're not getting the go-ahead from upstairs.''

Terry Penton, a businessman in Brandon, a city of 35,000 in midwestern Manitoba province, tells of a farm implement dealer who decided to go all out to save his business. A major sales push brought in downpayments on $500,000 worth of business in a few weeks - but when the purchasers went to the banks for credit, they were all turned away.

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In Canada, unlike the US, the terms of home mortgages have in recent years shrunk to five, three, or even one year. Rising interest rates have caused widespread anxiety among thousands of families stuck with ballooning monthly payments.

''Any time the phone rings during the day, my first thought is, 'is that the bank manager to tell us it's all over?' '' said one Toronto housewife.

Canadians are scrimping and saving as never before, putting off purchases of cars, appliances, houses, and other major items until their prospects improve. ''Knowing I can't own a good car has driven all interest in cars out of me,'' remarked school teacher Mervyn Mathier.

Housing prices, after a furious two-year run-up, have dived, with thousands of dollars being chopped off price tags in some centers. Everything, it seems, is suddenly ''on sale.''

Even Canada's traditionally unshakable banks are coming in for their share of doubt, having collectively loaned more than $3 billion to Dome Petroleum, the high-flying Canadian oil company currently troubled by its heavy debt load.

''A true national emergency'' is how the situation was described recently by one of the country's most powerful industrialists, Calvert Knudsen, head of Macmillan Bloedel, the huge forestry company in the province of British Columbia.

Warning that Canada could be in for an era of turmoil, Mr. Knudsen said, ''the fact that this happens to be an economic emergency doesn't make it any less real. The world is replete with examples of economic emergencies that have led to civil disobedience and other problems.''

Talk of hard times is pervasive. Remarking on the immense popularity of the movie, ''E.T.'', A journalist who likened the film to the escapist fare of the 1930s said, ''do you need any further proof that the depression is here?''

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