"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 relying 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 the 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 benefits in France because I was 18 when I left. And in Canada, I have the immigrant mindset: take care of yourself, and 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 caring 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 one 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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  1. Cynthia October 23, 2015 at 8:47 am

    What I dislike about the French system is that it sometimes seems too generous and there is no way that it can be sustainable in the long run.

    1. Zhu October 23, 2015 at 9:44 pm

      I’ve been hearing about “le trou de la sécu” since I was a kid… I know what you mean. I don’t really have a solution and I don’t think there is a perfect fix but I like the idea that such system exists. I hope it can be sustainable.

      1. Martin Penwald October 23, 2015 at 10:09 pm

        The “trou de la sécu” is ridiculously low besides tax breaks for extremely wealthy individuals, so it is not a good point.
        For example, I’ve read recently that if every U.S household was getting the same amount of money, it would be around $700.000/year (so $58333/month which is actually near the yearly U.S median household income).
        I am not saying that all pays should be equal, but there is room for improvement in wealth redistribution.

        1. Zhu October 25, 2015 at 1:18 am

          Oh yes… This is one thing that struck me when I started visiting the US, the very obvious gap between rich and poor. It does exist in many countries (if not all) but it was so obvious in the US… I was shocked.

          By the way, do you have any specific health insurance covering you when you are driving in the US?

          1. Martin Penwald October 27, 2015 at 3:17 am

            Yes, paid by the company.

  2. Lynn October 23, 2015 at 9:16 am

    I think this post captures the essence of what it means to be Canadian. On one hand, we want to take care of everyone, to feel like the social safety net means no one is left behind. But on the other hand, we also assume no one is going to take care of us, and we need to work hard to earn our own way – and that can even make us resentful of those on benefits. Which we totally want to provide. GAH.

    I think that’s why we tend to alternate in this country between Liberal and Conservative governments – we do the Conservative thing for a few years, then get bitter at the one side of us that is being ignored, then we herald a new age of Liberalism, give that a spin for a while, before the OTHER side of our personality chips in and demands a change back to Conservative. I just hope, in the long run, it balances out somehow.

    1. Zhu October 23, 2015 at 9:46 pm

      I have yet to see the “Liberal era”, I settled here in 2004 and it already felt like a Conservative government. I’m very curious to see this new leadership, to see another side of Canada. Oh, I don’t expect drastic changes, I’m not naive… but still, I’m curious.

  3. Jeruen October 23, 2015 at 12:57 pm

    Yeah, this is why I find myself being left-centrist most of the time. When it comes to personal liberties, I am quite left wing: freedom of speech, sexuality, religion, all that. However, when it comes to economics, I find myself seesawing between liking the free market and capitalist mindset, and also admiring the socialist welfare structures that European states have championed.

    Take for example my recent gallbladder removal surgery. How much I paid was minuscule compared to how much I would have paid if it happened in North America. There are just aspects of life that are well-cared for in a socialist set-up, like healthcare.

    But at the same time I understand the frustrations that such a set-up can bring. Look at how many times French and German trains have been on strike, not to mention other transportation services like Lufthansa and the London tube. As much as I can sympathize with the unions’ fight, sometimes it can be just plain annoying.

    So yeah, while I have clear views on personal matters, when it comes to economic matters, I end up being on the middle.

    1. Zhu October 23, 2015 at 9:49 pm

      I completely understand your mindset and I get very frustrated with the public service in France as well. The only thing is, I don’t think the private sector does much better overall. Maybe at first, when it has incentives. But look at North American airlines… everybody complain about them. The public transportation network is nonexistent in most cities. I used to admire North American universities, so practical, so luxurious compared to our French universities that are literally falling apart. But then, student debt is a real issue…

  4. Holly October 24, 2015 at 12:58 pm

    We have problems with Luke’s knee – he needs something doing, he has to have time off because it hurts so bad! It is arthritis and xrays show that his knee bones have worn each other down really badly but, because of his age, he can’t have surgery or a new knee. It is so frustrating.

    1. Zhu October 25, 2015 at 1:19 am

      That sucks. He should be covered by OHIP but it can be a long wait before getting surgery or even being eligible to it.

  5. Gagan November 3, 2015 at 8:54 am

    I am slightly shocked, so why wouldn’t they cure a herniated disk, it is absolutely medically necessary. I am just wondering what could be a logical explanation.

    And true, the daycare sounds expensive, now that I understand the dollar slightly more than earlier when I used to read your articles about daycare. I know it is sort of pointless to compare, since it is a whole different world here, I am just pointing out that in India, daycare is private, and for about 100 to 200 CAD you could get world class daycare, lol, right! However, again, it is pointless to compare.

    1. Zhu November 3, 2015 at 8:03 pm

      Well, they didn’t know how bad it was because it took several months (!!!) to get an MRI.

      1. Gagan November 3, 2015 at 9:08 pm

        Ce n’est pas bon 😮


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