CANADA

Revenge of the cradle

MICHAEL ROSE May 30 1988
CANADA

Revenge of the cradle

MICHAEL ROSE May 30 1988

Revenge of the cradle

In the 1950s, when Quebec’s birthrate was the highest in Canada, the province’s ability to produce babies was widely known as the “revenge of the cradle.” The phrase was a reference to the traditional Québécois belief that an expanding population would always ensure Quebec a leading place in Confederation. But now Quebec’s birthrate is the lowest in Canada and one of the lowest in the industrialized world. As a result,

Premier Robert Bourassa’s Liberal government has adopted a program that will offer Quebec families cash for having babies. The plan, unveiled in the government’s May 12 budget, raised some concerns that the measures could persuade low-income families to have children that they cannot afford. But many Quebecers welcomed the plan.

Last week Nicole Boudreau, president of the nationalist Saint Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal, said: “It is a grave problem for Québécois. If the population falls, then we will have a harder time maintaining our identity and our culture.”

Indeed, the problem strikes at the heart of Quebec’s future as a distinct

society in North America, a status that will be recognized formally if the controversial Meech Lake constitutional accord is approved. The numbers clearly are a cause for concern in the province: Quebec’s fertility rate—the technical term used for the rate of childbirth among women of childbearing age—last year stood at only 1.4 per woman, below the 1.7 average for Cana-

da and the 2.1 needed to maintain a stable population. With 6.6 million people, Quebec still has more than a quarter of Canada’s total population—a proportion only slightly lower than it had in the 1950s. But that ratio has been maintained only with the help of immigration. With those facts in mind, the budget presented by Finance Minister Gérard D. Levesque proposed to give parents $500 for each of a cou-

ple’s first two children, and $3,000 for each additional child after that. The $3,000 will be paid in quarterly instalments until the child reaches the age of 2. Levesque also announced that the province will forgo $126 million in annual taxes over a year by making family-allowance payments tax-free and

pledged to make $7,000 interest-free loans available to families with two or more children under 18 to help them buy a first house. As well, the province has promised to provide 60,000 new day care spaces over the next seven years, subject to agreement with Ottawa on a national day care program. Said Levesque: “Our government has an abiding concern for the financial welfare of Quebec families who care for children.” Quebec’s current dearth of babies contrasts sharply with the situation that existed a generation ago. During the 1950s, when the province was largely rural and Roman Catholic, Quebec’s fertility rate—which stood at 3.9 in 1959—was among the highest in the Western world. Then the province’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s launched a transformation of social and educational structures. The church’s once allpervasive influence waned, contraception became widely used, more women joined the workforce—and drastically fewer babies were born. Said Montreal’s McGill University sociologist Morton Weinfeld: “Quebec has had a major cultural revolution in the past 20 or 30 years, and a lot of factors have combined to create the current situation.” Meanwhile, some critics worried that the plan would encourage larger families among low-income Quebecers, who may not be able to provide financial security for new babies. But most social scientists said that the budget measures could have a valuable psychological effect. Jacques Henriprin, a demographer at the University of Montreal, said, “In themselves, measures like that may not change much, but they tell people that having children is valued and supported by society.” Added Weinfeld: “The important thing is the symbolic aspect. One of the ways we communicate what is valuable in our society is with dollar signs.”

Nationalist groups argued that Quebec’s long struggle for survival in a sea of English-speaking North Americans will be damaged by the declining birthrate. And Bourassa himself told his Liberal party’s policy convention in February that the low birthrate “is the No. 1 national question of the time, much more than the creation of an independent republic of Quebec.” But, said nationalist Boudreau, “it will take more than paying people to have babies to solve it.” She said that Quebecers need more day care facilities and more flexible hours for working parents. Quebec government officials acknowledged that they have taken only a few first steps toward a solution but they were gambling that the budgetary allowances will bear fruit within three to five years.

MICHAEL ROSE in Montreal