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Two Countries, Two Systems

"Social War never ends", Graffiti in Santiago, 2015
“Social War never ends”, Graffiti in Santiago, 2015

Earlier this year, my father received a phone call from an old friend of his who operates his own business, a graphic studio/ print shop. One of the employees had been injured in a bike accident and he was going to take sick leave while recovering, would my father be interested in a short-term work contract to fill in?

My father and his friend have known each other for thirty years. They made such arrangements in the past. These days, my father is self-employed—he teaches art classes and works on his projects (including illustrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or drawing relationships on old subway tickets). He is an artist. He is happy when he creates freely, he is miserable in a structured work environment. That said, he is also realistic enough to seize such opportunities when they arise (admittedly, with a healthy dose of nagging from my mum)—getting a regular pay cheque for a few weeks helps to make ends meet.

“Is the biker okay?” I asked, knowing that accidents can be brutal.

“He wrecked his knee,” my dad said. “But he will be fine.”

“His knee? And he can’t work?” I asked incredulously.

I wasn’t being sarcastic, I was genuinely surprised. The work at the print shop isn’t physical: employees are mostly in front of computers or operating machines that look like a supersized version of your regular printer. Naively, I thought that as long as he could sit, he’d be fine.

“But he is doing a lot of physiotherapy. And he has regular appointments with a surgeon,” my dad argued. “He is entitled to sick leave and he will get temporary disability benefits.”

This was back at the end of the winter. Since then, my dad’s work contract keeps on being extended because the employee isn’t ready to start working yet. “How long has it been now?” “Seven months.” “That’s crazy!”

As far as I know, this kind of situation is unthinkable in Canada. And at this point, I have to point out that the biker actually wants to go back to work, he likes his job and as far as I know, no, he isn’t milking the system.

French are used to rely on a plural welfare system, protecting people against the financial consequences of social risks like illness, maternity, old age or unemployment. It is the job of the state to fight social exclusion and for every problem or hardship, there is a specific financial arrangement. French are very casual about the welfare system, regardless of their political beliefs or socioeconomic status. So and so is getting unemployment benefits, so and so is getting housing benefits or rental assistance, so and so is getting family income supplement… the alphabet soup of various welfare programs seems to benefit everyone—even various politicians have been found using the system for themselves or their family.

I’m not insinuating that French abuse the system. Well, some do, for sure. I’m merely pointing out that it’s normal and expected to use whatever benefit you may be eligible to—and chances are, you are eligible for something if you live in France.

The mindset is very different in North America, and even in Canada, a country that bridges the two extremes—socialist France and the very liberal American system.

In Canada, the social safety net covers a broad spectrum of programs designed to give assistance to citizens outside of what the market provides. However, it is much less generous and comprehensive than in France.

For example, provinces provide universal, publicly funded healthcare. But it only covers services which are considered “medically necessary”, with their costs partially subsidized by the federal government. Services that are not “listed” (covered by a provincial insurance plan) have to be purchased privately. So a visit to your family doctor is covered but the drugs prescribed aren’t, unless you are covered by a private insurance plan.

Both elementary and secondary education is provided at a nominal cost but early childhood education and university are expensive. To give you an idea, daycare fees in Ottawa are between $800 and $1800 per month. Parents pay or one of them just stops working until the child goes to school at age 4.

The amount a person receives and how long they can stay on employment insurance varies with their previous salary, how long they were working, and the unemployment rate in their area. But I guarantee you that considering how long it takes to make a claim and how quickly benefits run out that you’d better find your new job very soon.

I have never received any benefit in France because I was 18 when I left. And in Canada, I have the immigrant mindset: take care of yourself, nobody else will.

At least, it has been my experience here so far.

About ten years ago, Feng developed a herniated disk. He was in agony for a year—he could barely walk and move despite physiotherapy (paid out of pocket, this is not considered “medically necessary”) and advice from doctors to “walk it off”. No one was taking him seriously because he was young and otherwise healthy. He ended up having surgery (covered by the healthcare system because at this point, yes, it was “medically necessary”) and the problem was fixed. But for a year, he couldn’t work. He quit a part-time job he had (he was developing his own business the rest of the time).

When I learned I was pregnant, I immediately realized my timing wasn’t great from a practical perspective: I had just quit my job to start my own freelance business. Even though I had been working full time in different jobs since 2004, I was no longer eligible for maternity leave. I worked through the pregnancy and after, where Feng and I would take turns to care for Mark. No, the monthly $200 we received for Mark wasn’t enough to live on.

My moral compass supports the idea of a robust welfare system. Life isn’t fair and I do think it’s our job, as a society, to bridge the gaps when they occur. I believe in redistribution. I believe in services that are free at the point of use. I believe that most people are good people who do want to contribute to society the best they can, they just need a bit of help. And don’t we all need help, for a reason or another, at some point in our life?

But at the same time, I spent most of my adult life in North America, where the market is king and people are expected to provide for themselves. Life isn’t fair? Yeah, well, work harder and good luck. Sink or swim.

I’m a product of a socialist system and I believe in its values, but I have to work within a more liberal system and adapt.

Two countries, two systems.

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