George Graham

The Canada Phenomenon: Neighbors Don’t Let Neighbors Die

I was living in Ontario when Canada introduced universal health care, and I don’t recall much of a “debate” about it. There were yelps from the doctors, of course. They saw it as limiting the amount of loot they could get away with. But eventually, they realized they had a good thing going and shut up.

Many years later, when I was living in Florida, my doctor, who was from Alberta, packed up and returned to Canada because he “couldn’t stand the bureaucracy” in America. That’s right, the “bureaucracy” imposed by a tangled web of for-profit health care providers and insurance companies.

To me, the necessity for sweeping health care reform in America seems so obvious that I can’t get my head around the “debate” that’s going on. What’s not to like about government provided health care? I can’t recall a time when there weren’t public hospitals in Jamaica. Even Queen Victoria understood that she had a responsibility to care for her subjects when they got sick.

So what’s the deal in America? Are Americans such daredevil gamblers that they get a thrill from living on the edge? Do they enjoy the prospect of financial ruin in the event of a major illness? Do they all own shares in the health care and health insurance companies?

Or is there some deep-rooted philosophical resistance to the concept of people coming to the aid of each other in times of trouble?

barn raising Back in the pioneer days, didn’t neighbors get together to rebuild barns that burned down? Didn’t housewives cheerfully lend each other a cup of sugar or a jug of milk? I know that’s what happened in Canada. Still happens.

This neighborly spirit was brought home to me when, as a Jamaican tenderfoot in Sault Ste. Marie one fiercely cold winter, I neglected to ensure I had an adequate supply of heating oil. It was Christmas Day when the space heater ran out of oil, and my wife, Rose, our baby, Ross, and I shivered helplessly in the subzero temperature. I got the Ford started and set out to find some heating oil. But nothing was open on Christmas Day back then. It was a day for workers to be home with their families.

I had abandoned the search and we were bundled up in a corner of our cottage when there was a rap on the door. It was our neighbor, and he was lugging a drum of heating oil.

“I saw there was no smoke coming from your chimney,” he said. “I figured maybe you ran out of oil?”

He figured right – thank God. Our three-month-old baby would surely have died if our neighbors had not been looking out for us. In a country like Canada, where the winters can be deadly cold, your survival can depend on a neighbor’s concern. I wonder whether that’s why Canadians take it for granted that people should help each other, that – as the poet John Donne said – no man is an island.

I notice that most of the resistance to “socialism” comes from the southern states in America. There, you can probably survive the winter without aid. There you can flaunt your self reliance amid poverty and squalor. You would be miserable, but you would survive.

Where the north winds blow, people realize how important it is to band together against the elements. For there, the price of “independence” could quite easily be death.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for