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Cool Canadians Heat Up Over Cuts

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

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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.''

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