Rev. Russell Schultz of Our Lady of Fatima Church in the Montreal suburb of St-Laurent remembers that shortly after he arrived in his parish 14 years ago, he was performing “at least three or four baptisms every week.” But the 61-year-old priest says that he considers himself fortunate if he can conduct four or five a month. Part of the reason: Quebec’s birthrate—once the highest in the Western world and, as such, a cornerstone of nationalist ideology—has tumbled to the third lowest (above West Germany and Denmark). And because each year brings a net loss in migration, some observers believe that the demographic squeeze threatens the very survival of Quebec society. Said Schultz: “All our young people have left for Toronto and the West.”
Schultz serves an English-speaking parish, but demographers say that his experience is actually a preview of what lies ahead for Quebec’s French-speaking majority. The province’s population of 6.5 million is still growing by .6 per cent a year, but statisticians say that the current low birthrate signals a drastic fall as early as 1999. Quebec’s fertility rate fell to 1.45 births per woman of childbearing age in 1984 from a 1960 high of 3.75. A recent national study of women’s intentions shows that Canada’s present fertility rate of 1.7 could
soon rise as high as 2.3, comfortably above the 2.1 rate needed to maintain a constant population. But there are no indications that Quebec women have similar plans. Said demographer Jacques Henripin of the University of Montreal: “It is simply a question of whether or not we want our society to survive.”
In Quebec, the birthrate is much more than a statistic. Historically fearful of being overcome by North America’s English-speaking majority and encouraged by the Roman Catholic Church to have large families, French-speaking Quebecers have always perceived a high birthrate as a method of survival. Indeed, nationalists consider Quebec’s traditionally high birthrate, long called “the revenge of the cradle,” as a key support to their ideology. But a decline in births began during the late 1950s and accelerated through the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, bringing Quebec into line with conditions in most Western countries. Said Henripin: “The goal of more children began to experience competition
either from mothers who wanted to work outside the home or from other lifestyle attractions.”
For all the drama of an impending decline in French Quebec, observers agree that it is the province’s Englishspeaking minority that is experiencing a decline now. Henripin’s most alarming speculation is that people whose first language is English may disappear entirely from Quebec within 50 years. Their birthrate is even lower than their French-speaking counterparts’—down to 1.25. Said George Mathews, an economist with the Institut national de la récherche scientifique in Montreal: “Population decline, like population growth, has its own dynamic. The more the population drops, the more services and institutions are withdrawn and the more the population correspondingly shrinks. It is truly a vicious circle.” Some Quebecers consider that trend to be a vindication of the province’s nationalist policies. But the message from demographers is that nobody is immune from it. Said Mathews: “When faced with the magnetism of growing markets and opportunities elsewhere in North America, it will not be long before young francophones also decide that their future lies elsewhere.” Last June the Quebec national assembly’s standing committee on cultural affairs acknowledged that scenario when it began examining possible solutions to the impending crisis. This month the committee heard conflicting arguments from experts, some advocating economic incentives to encourage mothers to have larger families, others arguing for increased immigration.
Indeed, Quebec may be alone on the continent in worrying about a declining population. Other Canadian provinces are benefiting from its emigration, and the revelations about an impending rise in their birthrates only dramatize the
countervailing trend in
Quebec. Although it is still too recent a phenomenon to have sunk into the popular consciousness, Quebec’s population watchers have no illusions about the urgency of the crisis.
To begin the job of regenerating its historically high birthrate, Quebec’s French-speaking majority might consider taking the advice that René Lévesque offered to Quebec’s anglophones when they first complained about their decline eight years ago. Said Lévesque: “Trust the power of your loins.
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