LIFESTYLES

Unmarried...with children

Quebecers pass up marriage for common-law relationships

NANCY WOOD August 23 1993
LIFESTYLES

Unmarried...with children

Quebecers pass up marriage for common-law relationships

NANCY WOOD August 23 1993

Unmarried...with children

LIFESTYLES

Quebecers pass up marriage for common-law relationships

Charles Plante still remembers her as the pretty girl with the dark eyes who used to slip in late to their firstyear law class at the University of Montreal. Friendship blossomed into romance and, in 1978, Plante and Céline Cyr began sharing an apartment. Twelve years later, when they both had steady jobs and felt secure about their futures, they decided to start a family. First came Christophe, now almost 3, and then David, now 14 months. Both boys were baptized in the Roman Catholic Church, with family and friends in attendance and large, joyful celebrations afterward. But as David fussed on his father’s knee last week in their home in Sillery, near Quebec City, the couple explained that, while they hope to grow old together, they feel no need for church approval of their union.

“For us, marriage has no value,” said Cyr, a 37-year-old Crown prosecutor. Plante, 39, a workplace health-andsafety counsellor, said that while he enjoys going to other people’s weddings, he always feels a bit glum when the priest begins to list the ways in which spouses are expected to suffer and sacrifice for one another. “It’s almost like a funeral,” said Plante. “I can’t believe the duties they impose on newlyweds.”

Neither, apparently, can a lot of other Quebecers. Among the provinces, Quebec has by far the highest rate of common-law relationships—19 per cent of all couples, compared with the national average of 11.3 per cent. And Quebecers are far more likely than other Canadians to have children out of wedlock: 48 per cent of all first-born Quebec children are born to unmarried parents, compared to 30 per cent across Canada. The statistics, experts say, underscore a profound social shift. “Quebec has a very different attitude towards institutions like marriage and the family,” said Jean Dumas, the head of current demographic analysis at Statistics Canada. “The rest of Canada has a tendency to be much more traditional.”

Not as traditional as it used to be: a 1968 law made divorce easier across the country. But there were other factors in Quebec. Laws passed in 1981 granted rights to illegitimate children and forced women to use their

maiden names on legal and financial documents even after marriage. And the Quiet Revolution of the late 1950s and early 1960s led to the rejection of the Catholic Church’s dominant role in the province’s social life. “We cannot deny what is happening,” said Denis Duval, a 72-year-old priest from Quebec City. “That would be like looking out the window at a rainy sky and saying, ‘What a lovely day!’ But we do not condemn, either. We are rather like parents who can no longer control their grown children.”

Lise Fournier, 32, and Yves Cloutier, 36, who live in Wakeham in the Gaspé with their two children, both felt strongly that marriage, and its religious trappings, were not for them. “We believe in God,” said Fournier, “But we are not churchgoers.” Stéphane Sabourin, a psychology professor at Laval University, says that there is a growing skepticism about institutions in general. “It is as though we’ve lost hope that marriage will protect us—that a church service will make a difference in the long run,” said Sabourin. “First, people lost faith in the church, then in the government. Now, there is a deep distrust of all things institutional.” In the economically devastated Gaspé region, fully 56 per cent of all couples live in consensual unions. “Just as they no longer believe they will ever have steady jobs,” Sabourin said, “they no longer believe that romance will last forever.”

As the number of unmarried couples has increased in Quebec—to 19 per cent of all couples in 1991 from 12 per cent in 1986 and eight per cent in 1981—some experts have become concerned that people do not understand the legal consequences of their actions. Before 1981, children in common-law unions could not inherit from their parents. Now, they have all the rights of those bom to married parents. But, unlike Ontario, which imposed legal obligations on common-law couples in 1978, Quebec laws still do not protect the unmarried adult partners. If one dies

without having written a will, the estate is inherited by that person’s family or children— not by his or her mate, no matter how long the couple lived together. And Quebec women living common-law are unlikely to receive any compensation, such as alimony, in the event of separation. Said Lucie Desrochers, a researcher for Quebec’s Council on the Status of Women: “There are many people out there who are living an illusion.”

Still, the council supports the Quebec government’s decision to leave consensual unions unregulated. “Sometimes people choose very consciously not to get married for very profound reasons,” said Desrochers. “We do not want to remove their ability to choose.” Sometimes, however, the reasons are not the least bit profound. According to Laval’s Sabourin, studies show that 25 per cent of unmarried couples do not even discuss their decision to live together. “It just happens,” said Sabourin. “Someone leaves a toothbrush one night, then an article of clothing and before they know it, they’re living together.”

Montrealers Sylvain Blais, 31, a life-insurance broker, and Daphne Bélanger, 29, a graduate student, decided to live together on the spur of the moment. Bélanger was looking for an apartment and, said Blais, “my roommate was moving out. So I said to Daphne: ‘Why not?’ ” At the time— 1990—they did not know if they would be together forever. ‘We took it one day at a time,” said Bélanger. Later, the couple talked of marriage, but when Bélanger became pregnant with Virginie, now 2, things changed: they say that they were reluctant to plan a wedding while coping with a pregnancy. Now, as they scrape together a monthly mortgage payment and renovate their first home, a wedding seems like a luxury they can ill afford. Blais says that his family was concerned about the consequences for the baby. But in the Montreal area, more than one-third of all couples are unmarried. “If people started discriminating against children of unmarried parents around here,” said Bélanger, “they’d be in a pretty small minority.”

In Sillery, Céline Cyr recalls how different things were for her own parents, who have also never married. Cyr said that they kept it a secret in order to avoid being ostracized. “As far as I can remember, I always knew my parents were not married,” said Cyr. “But I never brought it up at school. I wasn’t about to draw attention to it.” Now, she says, she and Plante have no such fears for their own children. “After all,” said Plante, “they have two parents who love each other and love them.” And that, both say, should be enough for anyone these days.

NANCY WOOD