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1995: ‘Tsubouchi diet’ causes uproar in Ontario

The Story

It's a crash diet that is threatening to burn the new Ontario government. Rookie social services minister David Tsubouchi, overseeing drastic cuts to the province's welfare system, has already infuriated opponents by suggesting welfare recipients could make ends meet by haggling with shopkeepers over tins of tuna. Now he's published a welfare shopping list that includes pasta without sauce, bread without butter, and the elusive 69-cent tuna can. Critics are calling it "the nanny state at its worst."

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Oct. 20, 1995
Guest(s): Dominic Agostino, Ivy Chrysler, Bob Rae, David Tsubouchi
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Denise Harrington
Duration: 2:02

Did You know?

• Mike Harris' Progressive Conservatives won the June 8, 1995 Ontario election by a landside, easily ousting Bob Rae's New Democrats. The party campaigned on a platform of fiscal restraint that they called the "common sense revolution." It included $4.5 billion in cuts to social services, and a push to get people off welfare. As minister of community and social services, David Tsubouchi was charged with implementing these cuts.

• Conservatives felt the reevaluation of government spending was long overdue, and applauded the deficit-cutting agenda. Opponents felt it was a direct assault on the province's poorest citizens. Within months there were huge demonstrations that turned into clashes with riot police outside the legislature in Toronto and at Tory functions across the province.

• David Tsubouchi quickly gained a reputation for verbal gaffes, including his suggestion that welfare recipients could negotiate a discount on dented tins of tuna and buy them for 69 cents a tin. (Store owners were quick to respond that prices were not negotiable, and tuna would continue to cost between one and two dollars a can.)

• Cutting welfare cheques by 22 per cent, Tsubouchi told single mothers on welfare that they had ample time to find jobs because they had a three-month warning. He also suggested welfare parents could just ask neighbours to look after their children, and accidentally ordered 115,000 disabled people and senior citizens to be cut off from their welfare benefits.

• In October 1995, Tsubouchi prepared a shopping list that was supposed to prove that a single welfare recipient could get by on $90 per month for food. There was no room on the list for luxuries such as butter or margarine, coffee or tea, salt and pepper, condiments, or sauce for pasta (pundits quickly pointed out that all of these are provided to prison inmates.)

• Nutritionists said the food plan would be utterly unpalatable, and journalists who tried it out said it made them feel depressed and ill. Writer Stephen Hume argued that it would be a war crime under the Geneva Convention to feed such food to captured prisoners. He said the Tsubouchi diet provided about 1,600 calories a day, which is half the standard set by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization and Welfare Canada.

• Responding to the shopping list, Toronto's NOW Magazine suggested that Tsubouchi was "doing his best to end his political career with self-inflicted wounds." But he held the post for a year, and was named minister of consumer and commercial relations in August of 1996. In 1999 he became Ontario's solicitor-general, and in 2001 became chair of the cabinet management board. He was named minister of culture under premier Ernie Eves in 2002.

• David Tsubouchi was also a lawyer and part-time actor. He made a guest appearance in an episode of the television comedy series SCTV, and played a Japanese salesman in the David Cronenberg horror movie Videodrome.



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