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CANADIANS CAN SAVE as much as 20 to 30 percent by buying their groceries in the United States. And according to our survey, and one conducted by the government's own Statistics Canada, many are doing just that.

According to our own market-basket survey, conducted this week at the A&P grocery store in St. Catharines, Ont., and at Braty's Bells on Niagara Falls Boulevard in the Town of Tonawanda, grocery shopping in the United States is a big bargain for our Canadian neighbors.

This difference was just one more woe being added to Canada's menu, as the nation struggles for its own survival in the provinces of Newfoundland, Manitoba and Quebec.

Newfoundland and Manitoba are weighing a constitutional amendment that would grant Quebec a "distinct society" status. Without it, Quebec has threatened to leave Canada altogether.

The litany of problems is being confounded by other factors, such as the unpopularity of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a breakdown in the country's national health insurance program and high taxes with higher ones scheduled to kick in Jan. 1.

Mulroney's popularity in Ontario, according to one recent poll, has dipped to an abysmal 12 percent.

Emergency surgery in some areas, including Toronto, Canada's largest city, has been curtailed because of a shortage of nurses. They claim they can't make ends meet on what the national health plan is paying them.

And on Jan. 1, the federal government is imposing its goods and services tax of 7 percent on everything from haircuts to funerals, exempting only groceries. Ontario residents then will pay the province's 8 percent sales tax on the total amount of their purchases.

This week, we took a look at the market-basket prices.

Allowing for the conversion from liters to pounds and an exchange rate of 15 percent in favor of the U.S. dollar, we went on a grocery-shopping trip in St. Catharines and the Niagara Frontier.

Our list was random and made no reference to sales.

In both cases, we converted our funds to Canadian. In other words,we were using Canadian dollars on both sides of the international boundary.

The prices quoted are what we paid in Canada and, in parenthesis, what we paid in the United States using Canadian dollars. Whenever it was possible, we bought name brands. But when that was not possible, we tried to match the quality.

Ragu spaghetti sauce with mushrooms $1.59 in Canada ($1.37 in Canadian funds in the United States.)

Paper towels, $2.99 ($1.63); one dozen large eggs, $1.39 ($1.13); one pound sliced bacon, $3.79 ($2.29); one pound coffee, $3.59 ($3.19).

One pound cut-up chicken, $2.50 ($1.48); one pound bananas, 39 cents (45 cents); one pound extra-lean beef, $3.50 ($2.75); one pound boneless sirloin steak, $6.29 ($5.39).

Ten pounds white potatoes, $5.90 ($4.14); loaf of bread, $1.39 (69 cents); box of laundry soap, $3.99 ($2.86); large bottle of Heinz ketchup $3.25 ($1.72).

Across the board, Canadians pay double for milk, beer, booze and cigarettes, compared with prices in the United States.

Statistics Canada projects that 7.2 million more Canadians than last year will make a day trip to the United States, most of them to Erie and Niagara counties, to shop.

A survey at the Niagara Factory Outlet in the Town of Niagara showed that Canadians believe they can save 25 to 80 percent by shopping there instead of at home.

That number of shoppers is expected to jump when the Mulroney government adds the 7 percent national tax to Ontario's 8 percent sales tax.

At the sprawling Pen Center Mall in St. Catharines, the largest shopping center in the Niagara Peninsula, the mall's marketing director said store owners hold out the hope that manufacturers, who now pay the 7 percent tax, will reduce their prices. That things will remain the same.

In the pricing business, that may not be a realistic hope.

In the past month, we have traveled more than 1,000 miles through Canada, and we have talked to scores of Canadians.

One evening last week, we met a woman in Oshawa, Ont., who was walking her dog.

When we spoke of Quebec separatism, the breakup of her Canada, she became eloquent.

"I will do anything I can to keep this country together. But what can I do?" she asked.

Perhaps, she said, Canadians who have spent 163 years in search of a national identity -- that certain something that sets them apart from their American "cousins" -- actually had found it in the bilingualism that gives them a biculturalism.

"And we didn't know it," she said, "and now we're going to lose it. . . ."

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