French Canadian Families

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French Canadian Families

French Canadian families populate every province and territory in Canada; however, the trends and history of these families are most clearly delineated in Quebec. Like other families in the Western world, the Quebec family has experienced profound transformations since the beginning of the twentieth century. Until this period, the Quebec family had been marked by the historical circumstances of the peopling of New France that led to a natural reproduction regime. This regime, where recourse to voluntary means of reducing fertility did not exist, featured families formed very early in the lives of men and women, resulting in high marriage rates and high fertility levels (Charbonneau et al. 1987). In such a context, French Canadian families' high fertility has been viewed as legendary. However, research shows that although French Canada's fertility level was high compared to that of France, it was comparable to that of other societies in the New World. At the end of the nineteenth century, contraceptive use became much more widespread in other North American regions, but remained rare in Quebec, thus sustaining higher fertility rates (Bouchard and Lalou 1993). Although fertility levels remained high, a decline was under way in some areas and in specific social groups by the end of the nineteenth century (Gauvreau and Gossage 2001).

Sociologists have considered the rural French Canadian family as representative of the stem family described by Frédéric LePlay from European observations. The stem family is characterized by the transmission of the family land to one heir only, who was in charge of assuring the survival of the name and the lineage. But various authors have dismissed the application of this interpretation to the French Canadian family (Gérin 1932; Verdon 1987; Bouchard 1987). Gérard Bouchard's work on the Saguenay families presented the most convincing dismissal of the stem family thesis applied to rural Quebec. Instead, he suggested a family model in which the settlement of as many children as possible served as the basis of the family strategy. This strategy did not aim at protecting the father's patrimony, but rather at enlarging it, exchanging it, or even selling it to assure that all the sons were settled. It also included geographic mobility as an important component, particularly when the territory was fully occupied and where frontier regions were accessible. Even if that theory has not been verified on a provincial scale, it appears to be the most plausible one to apply to the French Canadian family (Bouchard 1992; Dagenais 2000).

Urban families have also been studied. As early as 1921, the majority of Quebec families lived in urban environments. In this context, the family economic cycle was more unstable and precarious than in rural areas, particularly among factory workers' families. "The material and non-material heritage which the family can give to its children is drastically limited" (Falardeau 1953). It is within the urban environment that the Quebec family first changed: "Equalitarian and democratic-minded family units have substituted themselves for families of the traditional authoritarian, quasi-patriarchal type . . ." (Falardeau 1953, p. 117). However, this process happened slowly; according to Philippe Garigue, who studied families in the 1950s, differences between rural and urban families were less pronounced than similarities (1962). Therefore, it was not until the 1960s, that the effects of industrialization, urbanization, generalized education, and decline of the Catholic-Church influence were felt more intensely. The speed at which changes then took place, as well as their depth, are considered a revolution, often referred to as the Quiet Revolution (Pelletier 1992). Simultaneously profound family changes occurred. These transformations were most easily captured by demographic changes, traditionally considered boundary markers of family life. Not only are these phenomena easily observable and measurable signs, they also have a substantive sociological meaning, revealing the state of social institutions.

The Quebec Family and Marriage

Until the mid 1970s, the Quebec family was based on marriage. Society's norms permitted men and women to live together only if they were bound by a legal union. Moreover, the frequency of marriage before the age of fifty was stable and high: for both men and women, it has remained between 80 and 90 percent among all generations born after 1900 and before 1950. At the same time, for these cohorts, age at marriage decreased from twenty-eight to twenty-five for men, whereas women's average age dropped from twenty-five to twenty-two (Lapierre-Adamcyk and Péron 1983).

Marriage stability was strong; most marriages ended only with the death of one spouse. In Canada, and particularly in Quebec where the Catholic Church's rule prevailed, divorce was practically impossible until 1969, when an important bill was accepted by the Canadian Parliament, making divorce accessible to couples who acknowledged the failure of their marriage. After this, marriage changed from being an irrevocable institution to being a commitment that could be questioned. During the following decades, divorce increased to the point that by the end of the twentieth century, Quebec couples had one of the highest divorce rates in the world, estimated at about 50 percent (Duchesne 2001).

As divorce rates increased, marriage rates declined. In the early 1970s, the total nuptiality rate (indicator analog to the total fertility rate and summarizing current yearly age-specific marriage rates as the proportion of men or women who would get married before age fifty) was about 90 percent. It dropped quickly to less than 50 percent at the beginning of the 1980s and reached 35 percent by the end of the 1990s (Duchesne 2001). This indicator is lower than any marriage rate recorded in other regions of Canada, where legal marriage remained quite popular. By the end of the 1990s, it was lower than in European countries like Denmark and Norway where total nuptiality rates fell as early as 1970 (Duchesne 2001; Sardon 2000).

Nevertheless, because people are not getting married does not mean that they have become uninterested in conjugal life: while marriage was becoming less popular, common-law unions grew as the preferred choice of young couples who wanted to live together. In the early 1990s in Quebec, 80 percent of young women chose cohabitation when they first entered conjugal life. The growing importance of common-law unions is impressive indeed: practically nonexistent before 1970, this type of union included 50 percent of couples in 1996 (among women are aged 15–34). This remarkable evolution has not fully compensated for the decline of marriage; for example, in 1971, among women aged fifteen to thirty-four, 48 percent lived in a union while in 1996 only 44 percent did so. Moreover, the changing nature of conjugal unions has been strongly associated with very low fertility levels.

The Family and Reproduction

With respect to reproduction, Quebec family behavior changed sharply between the beginning and the end of the twentieth century. Although childlessness, due in part to the many men and women who joined celibate Catholic orders, was relatively high at the beginning of the century, the very high proportion of women who had more than six children made up the difference and ensured fast population growth. Quebec families maintained higher fertility levels than other North American families until the end of the 1940s, although the reduction of Quebec family size started as early as the end of the nineteenth century. This decline, although slow, was definitive (Gauvreau and Gossage 2001). During the post-World War II baby boom, Quebec couples adjusted their demographic behavior to resemble that of North America in general. At mid-century, the age at marriage fell, childlessness became less common, and large families became gradually marginalized, to the extent that women born after 1940 in Quebec had fewer children than those born in Ontario at the same time (Gauvreau and Gossage 2001).

Among cohorts born in the twentieth century, three models summarize the evolution of the distribution of Quebec women by the number of children born. The first model shows a pattern of high childlessness along with a high proportion of women with six or more children (generations born before 1921), which resulted in an average of
3.5 children per woman. The second model is characterized by a marked reduction of the proportion of childless women associated with a decreasing proportion of large families and growth of families with three or four children, leading to an average of 2.5 children (generations 1931–1936). Finally, the third model presents the return of a higher proportion of childless women (this time more related to voluntary childlessness), a domination of the two-child family and a near disappearance of four-child-families, producing an average of 1.6 children (generations born after 1960). Variations in the average age of childbearing are also noticeable. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the mean age at childbearing exceeded thirty years due to the late arrival of the last children. When families started shrinking, the age at childbearing then dropped to between twenty-six and twenty-seven: couples rarely had more than two children, and first and second order children came at an early age following early marriage. Among generations born after 1960, the average age at childbearing grew, to between twenty-eight and twenty-nine, mainly because of the postponement of the first birth.

This transition towards a small family size and lower fertility could not have been possible without effective contraceptive methods. Contraceptive use slowly spread in the population, but at first the main contraceptive method was the rhythm method (periodical abstinence). The influence of the Catholic Church remained a determining factor. Nevertheless, the church gradually lost its influence, and toward the end of the 1960s, women began to use contraceptive pills. Furthermore, in the mid-1970s, a very substantial number of couples turned to sterilization as soon as their desire for children was fulfilled (Marcil-Gratton 2000).

The radical reduction of the family size within the generations born after 1930 resulted from a major decline in the desire for children. How can this be explained? In all likelihood, Quebec, as most Western societies, went through major social and economic reorganizations that profoundly affected society's thinking about families and children. One factor was the influence of structural changes, such as urbanization and industrialization. Generalized education, as well as declining religious values, also had a significant impact, particularly in Quebec. The resulting growth of individualism encouraged both men and women to make decisions based on personal goals rather than social or institutional criteria. Such an evolution necessarily challenged the need or desire for children (Lesthaegue 1988). Second, the declining desire for children was associated with the development of a mentality based on economic rationality: considering their resources, couples compare satisfactions gained from having children with the costs, direct and indirect, they represent; children, especially the third or the fourth, lost in this cost-benefit analysis (Henripin 1989). As this way of thinking became more and more internalized, the desire for children was further reduced. Finally, the entry of married women into the workforce, even though it happened quite late in Quebec, corresponded to one of the most significant transformations associated with family change in Western societies. It provoked an ongoing redefinition of male and female roles in couples' private lives, and major adjustments, still underway, from institutions and labor markets. Numerous authors consider that maintaining a fertility level that is sufficient to ensure social reproduction is founded on the society's capacity to realign its institutions in order to allow men and women to reach equality in their family and professional lives (Chesnais 1996; MacDonald 2000).

Children's New Family Environment

Combined changes in family size and in the nature of conjugal unions greatly modified the environment in which children are raised. In 1951, 32 percent of children lived in families with more than six children; in 1991, this percentage was less than 1 percent. Moreover, in 1951, 27 percent of children were living in families with one or two children; in 1991, this percentage reached 70 percent (Duchesne 1997). The reduction in the number of siblings occurred with a transformation of the family context prevailing at the birth of children. More than 90 percent of children born in the early 1960s had parents who had not lived together before getting married; among those born in the early 1990s, these children represented less than 25 percent (Marcil-Gratton 1998). Fifty-eight percent of children born in 2000 were born out of wedlock (Duchesne 2001).

New types of unions led to a rise in conjugal instability and, consequently, a growing number of children now experience their parents' separation. This proportion has grown from one cohort to the next, and for recent cohorts; it is almost four times higher for children whose parents were in a common-law union than for children whose parents had married without previously living together (Marcil-Gratton 1998). As a result, more and more children are spending time living with only one parent, as well as life in stepfamilies. For example, 23 percent of children born between 1972 and 1977 (observed at age 10–14) had already lived in a single-parent family, and one-third belonged to step-families when they were observed. Twenty-nine percent of children born five years later had experienced the same situation, with 40 percent belonging to a stepfamily (Duchesne 1997). In the context of this rapid diversification of families, parental roles are undergoing a profound redefinition. In particular, research shows that fatherhood is being shaken by separation and divorce, given the difficulty of maintaining contact between fathers and children in such circumstances ( Juby and Le Bourdais 1998). Undoubtedly, these changes are highly significant, and their implications for children's and families' futures remain unknown.

The State and The Family: Family Policies

What is the Quebec family's future? Undoubtedly, the recent evolution, particularly the low fertility level, has provoked public awareness and debate (Dandurand, R.B.; Lefebvre, P.; and Lamoureux, J.P. 1998). The Quebec government, unlike Canada's English-speaking regions, has developed a family policy in the last two decades, following a European trend. During the last half century, Quebec has moved from being the province with the most hostile attitude towards state intervention in the family to being its greatest advocate. When the federal government introduced family allowances in 1946, the Catholic Church and, to some extent, the Quebec government opposed the measure, both because it favored smaller families and because it questioned paternal authority by paying the allowance directly to mothers.

The 1970s, characterized by an increase in women's rights, saw the first measures aimed at reconciling the demands of work and family life; by the end of the decade, the Quebec government confirmed the principle of governmental responsibility in the provision of day care by adopting the Loi des services de garde à l'enfance (Law for Child Care Services), and creating the Office des services de garde à l'enfance (Office for Child Care Services). In the 1980s, after a broad consultation and years of debates, the government recognized the value of the family to society as a whole and undertook a series of measures to contribute to the cohesion and stability of the family in its diverse forms, and to support parents in their role as the primary caretakers of children. It implemented universal programs of direct financial assistance to families, recognizing the increased needs of larger families, the specific needs of young children, and the equality of all family types. At the end of the decade, measures that favored larger families were included, such as a modest birth allocation for the first and second children and a much more generous one for the third or higher order birth.

However, after years of economic recession and budget cuts as the Quebec government struggled to balance its budget, new legislation adopted in September 1997 changed the face of the programs of direct financial assistance for Quebec families. The dominant universal family policy model was abandoned and replaced by a targeted, selective approach.

Relative to the future of the Quebec family, two questions should be considered in appraising the effects of the family policy: The first addresses the question of promoting a higher birth rate. However, although some studies concluded that the pronatalist measures applied in Quebec in 1988 slightly increased the number of children born (Duclos, E.; Lefebvre, P.; and Merrigan, P. 2002), it remains very difficult to demonstrate without any doubt. The impact of family policy measures on the birth rate remains an open question. The second point concerns the necessity of developing long-lasting measures that complement one another; these measures minimally have to ensure that poor families are supported. At the same time, to the extent that mothers' participation in the labor force is culturally and economically promoted, they have to provide means to reconcile work and family responsibilities.


The evolution of the Quebec family has specific features, but doubtlessly, trends have to be interpreted within the deep transformations of Western families and societies. Greater individualism, weakening of social institutions, increasing individual freedom, rejection of institutional criteria in the decision-making process about family matters, declining influence of religious values, redefinition of male and female as well as parental roles—all of these constitute elements that are intertwined to sustain the frailty of the contemporary family.

See also:Canada


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evelyne lapierre-adamcyk cÉline le bourdais nicole marcil-gratton