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Census 2006 Results: Is Marriage Passé?
The Census has helped to reveal that government policy can have an effect on marriage.

Wedding aisles aren’t gathering dust just yet, but in Canada, the trend for marrying is on the decline. Statistics Canada has just released its 2006 Census report: Families, marital status, households and dwelling characteristics, “a 'family portrait' of Canada—a snapshot of families, marital status, households and living arrangements”. There are two notable findings, which were reported widely in the media: unmarried people outnumber legally married people for the first time and this is the first census which reports the number of same-sex marriages.

Whose responsibility is it to make marriages last longer and encourage couples to have more children?

In 2006, more than one-half adults in Canada were unmarried. 51.5 percent of adults over the age of 15 were never married, divorced, separated or widowed. At first glance, one wonders why the statistics for marriage start at age 15 (how many 15-year-olds do you know who are married?), but the reporting is consistent with previous years reports; twenty years ago, 38.6 percent of the population aged 15 and over were unmarried and 61.4 percent were married.

In the other significant report, are the first numbers regarding same-sex marriage. In this, Statistics Canada may be a bit sensational by reporting, “The number of same-sex couples surged 32.6 percent between 2001 and 2006, five times the pace of opposite-sex couples (+5.9 percent).” Let’s not forget that same-sex marriage was just legalized in Canada on July 20, 2005 and of course there will be a reported surge in same-sex marriages since the last census. There were no same-sex marriages in 2001. Actually, just16.5 percent of same-sex couples in Canada are married. Same-sex couples represented just 0.6 percent of all couples in Canada (similar to data from New Zealand with 0.7 percent and Australia with 0.6 percent) – compare that to 68.6 percent of families consisting of married heterosexual couples.

These latest statistics do confirm an alarming trend – marriages are steadily on the decline. Marriage in Canada consistently remained the dominant form of cohabitation from the 1921 Census onward – hovering at around 90 percent of Canadian families for over half a century of Census data. Starting with the Census of 1971, the number of married families in Canada took a substantial dip. There are a number of significant milestones which coincide with the decline of marriage in Canada. While I am not suggesting a cause and effect, these events are certainly worth noting:

With the introduction of no-fault divorces in 1967 (and a record year of divorces in 1968), the 1971 Census confirms that marriage began to wane and declined from 90.6 percent in 1971 to 68.6 percent in 2006. During that time, common-law relationships were first recorded in 1981, with 5.6 percent of couples living common-law and rising to 15.5 percent in 2006.

The “Pill” was introduced in 1961 and contraception made legal in Canada in 1969. In 1971, for the first time in Census history, Canada’s birthrate fell below 2.1, the population replacement rate (this meant that marriage and children didn’t automatically go hand-in-hand).

What the Census can help reveal, is that government policy can have an effect on marriage as demonstrated in the laws on no-fault divorce and the recognition of common-law relationships. That said, government policy decisions are not the only factor to the weakening of the marriage institution, since likely it is responding to pre-existing social realities.

What’s to be done? Whose responsibility is it to make marriages last longer and encourage couples to have more children? Governments? Churches? Personal responsibility?

When Jim Flaherty, Canada’s Finance Minster was asked recently what government incentives could strengthen marriage and encourage Canadians to have more children, he mentioned a number of government grants and programs that help accomplish this (child tax credits etc), but also asked, “Is it really the government’s responsibility to make sure Canadians marry and have children?” A province in Russia seems to think so. Recently the Russian province, Ulyanovsk proclaimed Family Contact Day, nicknamed “Conception Day” where workers are encouraged to take the day off work and…you know.

However governments try to respond to the issue of strengthening marriages and families, clearly this is a broader societal issue – one that needs much more attention both from government and society as a whole. But there is something the government can do. The process that governments in Canada are now using to redefine social policy is seriously flawed, Rather than coming up with a substantive social policy relating to the family, governments have been addressing the issue in a piecemeal fashion, leaving the hard choices to the courts. The government needs to study the potential impact on children generally and accept responsibility to set the social policy that is in the best interests of Canadians.

Statistics Canada has reported (PDF) a correlation between poverty and social dysfunction with the increase in less-stable relationships, family breakdowns and single-parent families. Kids do best with two parents. Children are affected negatively by divorce. Common-law relationships do not last as long as married couples. Behind the Census Canada numbers, that married people are now in the minority of the adult population, are the numbers of children who are being hurt by the ever-changing makeup of the “new” Canadian family. The Census gives us the numbers. It is now up to government and each one of us to respond to what those numbers are actually telling us.

On reviewing the Census, one commentator lamented that it is too late for us now to go back to the good old days (when there were more marriages and larger families). Call me old fashioned if you will, but I think the evidence from our history suggests that the way we did things in the past makes for a stronger Canada than the path we are currently following as a nation.

Douglas Cryer is the director of public policy for The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada.




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