Polyamory in Canada: Research on an Emerging Family Structure

John-Paul Boyd, M.A., LL.B.

Executive Director
Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (University of Calgary)

 
The Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family began a study of perceptions of polyamory in Canada in June 2016. The project is only midway through its course, but the data collected so far have important implications for law and policy in the coming decades, as the meaning of family continues to evolve.

The term polyamory is a mash-up of the Greek word for much or many and the Latin word for love. As these roots suggest, people who are polyamorous are, or prefer to be, involved in more than one intimate relationship at a time. Some polyamorists are involved in stable, long-term, loving relationships involving two or more other people. Others are simultaneously engaged in a number of relationships of varying degrees of permanence and commitment. Still others are involved in a web of concurrent relationships ranging from short-term relationships that are purely sexual in nature to more enduring relationships characterized by deep emotional attachments.

 

Polyamory
The practice or condition of participating in more than one intimate relationship at a time. It is usually not related to religion and it is unrelated to marriage.

Polygamy
The practice or condition of having more than one spouse, typically a wife, at one time, usually for religious reasons.

 

Polyamory and polygamy

For many people, TLC’s Sister Wives and the religious community in Bountiful, British Columbia are what come to mind when polyamory is mentioned. However, there are a number of differences between polyamory and the polygamy practised by the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that being the common connection between Sister Wives and Bountiful. Polygamy in this sense refers to marriages – the “gamy” of polygamy comes from the Greek for marriage – between one man and many wives that are mandated by scripture and distinctly patriarchal.

In contrast, surveyed polyamorists involved in relationships with two or more other adults place a high value on the equality of their partners, regardless of gender or parental status. They tend to believe that their partners should have a say in changes to their relationships and should be able to leave those relationships how and when they wish.

Although Statistics Canada doesn’t track the number of Canadians who are polyamorous or engaged in polyamorous relationships, in just three weeks we received 547 valid responses to a survey on polyamory advertised primarily through social media.((Survey data have not been weighted.)) More than two-thirds of respondents (68%) said that they are currently involved in a polyamorous relationship, and, of those who weren’t, two-fifths (39.9%) said that they had been involved in such a relationship in the last five years. More than four-fifths of respondents said that in their view the number of people who identity as polyamorous is increasing (82.4%), as is the number of people openly involved in polyamorous relationships (80.9%).
 

If the number of people involved in polyamorous relationships is indeed growing, the potential economic and legal implications are significant, as almost all of Canada’s most important social institutions are predicated on the assumption that adult relationships come only in pairs.

 
If the number of people involved in polyamorous relationships is indeed growing, the potential economic and legal implications are significant, as almost all of Canada’s most important social institutions are predicated on the assumption that adult relationships come only in pairs. The Canada Pension Plan pays survivor’s benefits to only one spouse; the Old Age Security spousal allowance can only be paid to one partner. The forms we use to calculate our liability to the Canada Revenue Agency likewise assume that taxpayers have sequential but not concurrent relationships, an assumption shared by the provincial legislation on wills and estates and, for the most part, the provincial legislation on domestic relations.
 

Polyamorists in Canada are generally younger, and live in diverse relationships

Most of the respondents to our survey live in British Columbia (144), followed by Ontario (116), Alberta (71) and Quebec (37). Respondents tend to be younger than the general Canadian population, with 75% of respondents being between the ages of 25 and 44, compared to 26% of the general population, and only 16% of respondents being age 45 or older, compared to 44% of the general population.

Most of the respondents to our survey had completed high school (96.7%), and respondents’ highest levels of education attained were undergraduate degrees (26.3%), followed by post-graduate or professional degrees (19.2%) and college diplomas (16.3%). Respondents reported achieving significantly higher levels of educational attainment than the general population of Canada: 37% of respondents reported holding an undergraduate university degree, compared with 17% of the general population; and 19% of respondents reported holding a post-graduate or professional degree, compared with 8% of the general population.
 
 

 
The respondents to our survey also tended to have higher incomes than their peers in the general Canadian population. Fewer respondents (46.8%) had incomes under $40,000 per year than the general population (60%), and more respondents (31%) had incomes of $60,000 or more per year than the general population (23%). Although almost half of our respondents had annual incomes of less than $39,999, almost two-thirds of respondents were not the sole income-earner in their household (65.4%) and more than three-fifths of respondents’ households (62.3%) had total incomes between $80,000 and $149,999 per year.

Slightly less than one-third of respondents identified as male (30%) and almost three-fifths identified as female (59.7%); the rest identified as genderqueer (3.5%), gender fluid (3.2%), transgender (1.3%) or “other” (2.2%). A plurality of respondents described their sexuality as either heterosexual (39.1%) or bisexual (31%).

Most of the respondents to our survey described themselves as atheists (33.9%) or agnostic (28.2%). Of those subscribing to an organized faith, most said that they were Christian (non-denominational, 7.2%; Roman Catholic, 3.2%; Protestant, 1.3%). However, more than one-fifth of respondents (22.1%) described their faith as “other,” including Quakers, pagans and polytheists.

We also asked our respondents about their relationships and living arrangements. Almost two-thirds of the respondents answering this question said that their relationship involved three people (64.6%), 17.9% said that their relationship involved four people and 13.8% said that their relationship involved six or more people. Only one-fifth of respondents said that the members of their relationship lived in a single household (19.7%). Where the members of a family lived in more than one household, most lived in two households (44.3%) or three households (22.2%).

 


 
Where the members of a family live in a single household, three-fifths of respondents’ households involved at least one married couple (61.2%), and there was only one married couple in those households. Where the members of a family lived in more than one household, almost half involved at least one married couple (45.4%), and 85% of those households involved one married couple while the remainder involved two married couples (12.9%), three married couples (1.4%) and more than three married couples (0.7%).

Almost one-quarter of the survey respondents (23.2%) said that at least one child under the age of 19 lives full-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian, and 8.7% said that at least one child lives part-time in their household under the care of at least one parent or guardian.
 
 

 
To summarize, the respondents to our survey tended to be younger, with higher levels of education and higher employment rates than the general Canadian population. Twice as many respondents identified as female than male, and roughly equal numbers of respondents described themselves as heterosexual and bisexual. Most respondents involved in polyamorous relationships at the time of the survey were involved in a relationship with two other people. However, a significant number of respondents were involved in relationships with more than three other people and the members of most respondents’ relationships live in two or more households.
 

Surveyed polyamorists highly value equality in relationships and family decision-making

The survey also explored attitudes toward polyamorous relationships and the people involved in them, and about their perceptions of the attitude of the general public toward polyamory.

On the whole, respondents strongly endorsed the equality of members of their relationships, regardless of gender and parental status. More than eight in 10 respondents (82.1%) strongly agreed and 12.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of gender or gender identity. More than half (52.9%) strongly agreed and 21.5% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should be treated equally regardless of parental or guardianship status.

Likewise, a large majority of respondents agreed that all members of their relationships should have a say about changes in those relationships. About eight in 10 (80.5%) strongly agreed or agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say about changes in the nature of the relationship, and 70.3% strongly agreed or agreed that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have an equal say about introducing new people into the relationship. More than nine in 10 respondents (92.9%) strongly agreed and 6.3% agreed with the statement that each person in a polyamorous relationship should have the right to leave the relationship if and when they choose.

Respondents’ conviction in the equality, autonomy and participation of the members of their relationships likely explains another important finding from our research: 89.2% of respondents strongly agreed and 9.2% agreed with the statement that everyone in a polyamorous relationship should have the responsibility to be honest and forthright with each other.

The views of the general public toward polyamory have doubtless been complicated by the popularity of television shows dealing with polygamy, such as Sister Wives, My Five Wives, another TLC offering, and Big Love, from HBO, and by the publicity attracted by the recent criminal prosecution of a number of community leaders from Bountiful under s. 293 of the Criminal Code. The views of respondents themselves have also been influenced by the Criminal Code, sections 291 and 293 of which respectively prohibit bigamy and polygamy.

Although most respondents said that public tolerance of polyamory is growing (72.6%), more than eight in 10 (80.6%) agreed that people see polyamorous relationships as a kind of kink or fetish. Furthermore, only 16.7% of respondents agreed that people see polyamorous relationships as a legitimate form of family

Polyamorous families have a unique and complex relationship with the law

The responsibilities of people involved in long-term, committed polyamorous families tend to be complicated, especially when those responsibilities must intersect with people outside the family, government services and the law. The difficulties faced by polyamorous families, especially those with children, cover every aspect of life in Canada:

  • Who will schools recognize as parents and guardians, entitled to pick children up from school, give permission for outings or talk to teachers about academic performance?
  • Who can get information from and give instruction to doctors, dentists, counsellors and other health care providers?
  • Who can receive benefits from an employee’s health insurance? Who is entitled to coverage under provincial health care plans (e.g., OHIP in Ontario or MSP in British Columbia)?
  • Who is entitled to claim public benefits such as the Old Age Security spousal allowance or Canada Pension Plan survivor’s benefits?
  • What are the rights and entitlements of multiple adults under the provincial legislation on wills and estates, or the federal legislation on immigration?
  • How many adults may participate in the legal parentage of a child under the legislation on adoption and assisted reproduction?
  • What are the rights and entitlements of individuals leaving polyamorous families under the provincial legislation on domestic relations?

 
Many of the answers to these questions come down to how the applicable laws, policies and rules define terms such as parent, spouse and guardian, adult interdependent partner in Alberta, or common-law partner under most federal statutes.

The responsibilities of people involved in long-term, committed polyamorous families tend to be complicated, especially when those responsibilities must intersect with people outside the family, government services and the law.  

Although schools and hospitals tend to look at the nature of the relationship between the individuals in question rather than a textbook definition of “parent,” agencies providing benefits tend to cleave more rigidly to narrowly defined terms. Some polyamorous families, for example, have been required to decide which of the adults in their family will be deemed to be an employee’s “spouse” for the purposes of health care and prescription coverage, resulting in the coverage of the employee and the family member selected as his or her spouse, but the denial of benefits to others.

The most urgent of these questions, however, likely relate to individuals’ entitlements and obligations under the provincial legislation on domestic relations. When committed polyamorous relationships come to an end, the same range of problems tend to arise as those faced by people ending monogamous relationships. Depending on the circumstances, the departure of one or more members of a polyamorous family may result in disagreements about: where children will live, how parenting decisions will be made and how much time the children will have with whom; whether child support must be paid, and if so who must pay it; whether a person is entitled to spousal support, and if so who is responsible for paying it; and how property and debt will be distributed, and whether an individual is entitled to an interest in property owned only by other family members.
 

When committed polyamorous relationships come to an end, the same range of problems tend to arise as those faced by people ending monogamous relationships.

 
On the whole, the legislation of the common law provinces tends toward the generous extension of rights and duties relating to children but takes a more parsimonious approach to spousal support and the division of property.

In keeping with the child-first approach of the Child Support Guidelines, the statutes of Canada’s common law provinces all impose a liability for child support on persons who are step-parents or stand in the place of a parent to a child, whether anyone else is subject to a pre-existing child support liability or not. As a result, all members of a polyamorous family are potentially liable to pay support for a member’s child, particularly where the child’s primary residence was the polyamorous household.

A dependent adult family member may be entitled to spousal support from another member of a polyamorous family if:

a) the person is a married spouse of the other member; or,

b) the person qualifies as an adult interdependent partner (Alberta), an unmarried spouse (British Columbia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan), a partner (Newfoundland and Labrador) or a common-law partner (Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia) of another member.((Note that the legal situation in Quebec is different than in the rest of the rest of Canada’s provinces since it is governed by civil law rather than the common law system used in the other provinces. As such, it is beyond the scope of this article.))

A dependent adult family member may be entitled to spousal support from more than one family member where the legislation is not written so as to preclude the possibility of concurrent spousal relationships, as it is in Alberta, or the person qualifies as an unmarried spouse or partner of those members, as may be the case for families living in British Columbia.

In all of the common law provinces but Alberta and Manitoba, a child’s parents may share custody of the child, as well as the associated rights to receive information about the child and make decisions concerning the child, with:

a) other family members who fall within the statutory definition of guardian (British Columbia, Nova Scotia) or parent (New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Ontario, Prince Edward Island); and,

b) any other family members where the legislation does not require a biological relationship to apply for custody (British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan).

The legislation of British Columbia and Newfoundland and Labrador additionally allow more people than the biological parents of a child to have standing as the legal parents of that child when the child is conceived through assisted reproduction.

In all of the common law provinces except Manitoba, a child’s parents may share guardianship of the child, and the associated obligations as trustees of the child’s property, with one or more other family members.

With the exception of British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, statutory rights to the possession and ownership of property are restricted to married spouses in the common law provinces, limiting the relief available to the unmarried members of a polyamorous family to:

a) the legislation generally applicable to co-owned real and personal property; and,

b) whichever principles of equity and the common law might apply in the circumstances of the relationship.

The statutory property rights available to the members of polyamorous families in British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan arise from the application of the legislation to unmarried spouses (British Columbia, Saskatchewan) and common-law partners (Manitoba), and the failure of the legislation to preclude the possibility of concurrent spousal relationships.
 

A look down the road

The traditional model of the Western nuclear family, consisting of married heterosexual parents and their legitimate offspring, which prevailed almost unaltered for more than 1,000 years, has been evolving at an ever-increasing pace since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, along with the legal concepts and structures that support it. The legal disabilities of married women, such as their inability to own property or conduct business in their own names, were the first to go, followed by the disabilities associated with bastardy, such as the inability to inherit or assume their father’s title.

The federal Divorce Act first allowed Canadians to end their marriages other than by dying in 1968, and the baby boomers, the oldest of whom turned 65 in 2011, are the first generation to have lived almost the whole of their adult lives under federal divorce legislation. Not only has the stigma associated with divorce largely evaporated, but the rate of remarriage and repartnering has continued to rise over the last two decades, as has the number of blended families, which seem to now be as commonplace as unblended families.

Sexual orientation became a prohibited ground of discrimination in the mid-1990s, following which same-sex marriage became legal in Ontario in 2002, and in eight other provinces and territories in rapid succession thereafter, until the introduction of the federal Civil Marriage Act in 2005 legalized same-sex marriage throughout the country. Legislation giving unmarried cohabiting couples property rights identical to those of married spouses became law in Saskatchewan in 2001, in Manitoba in 2004 and in British Columbia in 2011.

In Canada, family is now thoroughly unmoored from marriage, gender, sexual orientation, reproduction and childrearing; the presumption that romantic relationships, whether casual, cohabiting or conjugal, are limited to two persons at one time is likely to be the next focal point of change.

The scant data currently available on polyamorous relationships suggest that the number of people involved in such families is not insignificant and may be increasing: according to a 2009 article in Newsweek, Loving More, a magazine aimed at polyamorous individuals, has “15,000 regular readers,” and more than 500,000 Americans live in openly polyamorous relationships; in Polyamory in the Twenty-First Century, author Deborah Anapol estimates that one in 500 Americans are polyamorous; and the website of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association, polyadvocacy.ca, identifies two other national organizations supporting or connecting people involved in polyamorous relationships and eight similar regional organizations based in the Maritimes, 36 in Quebec and Ontario, 23 in the prairie provinces and 22 in British Columbia.
 

We have successfully accommodated significant, transformational change to how we think of family in the past, and we will do so again.

 
If the prevalence of polyamory is indeed increasing, a significant number of our most important social customs and institutions will need to evolve. This will require a reconsideration of how we think of parenthood and how we distribute the liabilities parenthood entails. It will also have an impact on how we demarcate those committed adult relationships that attract legal entitlements and obligations and those that do not, as well as how these entitlements and obligations are distributed among more than two people.

Although the magnitude of potential change is significant, it is not pressingly imminent; we have time to acclimate and adapt to the rising number of polyamorous individuals and families. We have successfully accommodated significant, transformational change to how we think of family in the past, and we will do so again.

 


John-Paul Boyd, M.A., LL.B., is the Executive Director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family, a multidisciplinary non-profit organization affiliated with the University of Calgary.

To learn more about John-Paul Boyd’s research into polyamorous relationships and family law, see “Polyamorous Families in Canada: Early Results of New Research from CRILF” from the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family.

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Published on April 11, 2017




Vanier Institute Update: March 2017

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Participants Wanted for Survey on Mobile Work

Many employees in Canada are “on the move” for work. Mobile workers may engage in long daily commutes, extended absences from home lasting weeks, months and even years, and many people travel to, from and within their jobs. These employment patterns have an impact on workers, their families, employers and the communities in which they live.

To understand this reality and how it affects households and communities, and influences and impacts Canadian prosperity, the Vanier Institute of the Family is collaborating with 40 researchers from 17 disciplines and 22 universities across Canada and around the world as part of the On the Move Partnership.

As part of this research initiative, a team of researchers is conducting a study of leading HR policies and practices used to manage mobile workers and balance concerns regarding employee productivity, family and well-being.

The On the Move Partnership is currently seeking survey participants. Do you have responsibility for mobile employees in your organization who need to spend extended time away from home to do their jobs? If so, your participation is invited.

There are two ways to take part:

  1. A confidential telephone interview (which will take less than one hour to complete). Please contact Kara Arnold arnoldk@mun.ca for this option.
     
  2. An anonymous online survey taking approximately 45–60 minutes to complete.

On the Move will create a report and a free webinar on the survey findings. Participants will have access to these resources as benchmarks for participating organizations as well as a source of ideas about what policies and practices work for these employees and their organizations. Participants can also enter a draw for a free registration to an online HR Social Media seminar.

Please email Kara Arnold for more information: arnoldk@mun.ca.

To learn more about the On the Move Partnership, visit the project page, or read the following resources:

 


The proposal for this research has been reviewed by the Interdisciplinary Committee on Ethics in Human Research and found to be in compliance with Memorial University’s ethics policy. If you have ethical concerns about the research, such as the way you have been treated or your rights as a participant, you may contact the Chairperson of the ICEHR at icehr@mun.ca or by telephone at 709-864-2861.




Infographic: Women, Caregiving and Work in Canada

Caregiving is a fact of life and a common family experience in Canada. At some point in their lives, most family members have provided – or will provide – care to a family member or friend with a long-term health condition, disability or aging need. However, Canadians don’t share a single narrative or caregiving experience, as social, economic, cultural and environmental factors shape who is expected to provide care, what kind of care they provide and the consequences of managing caregiving in addition to paid work.

And while the gap between women and men has lessened over the past generation, caregivers have historically been disproportionately women, and this remains true today. Research also shows that on average, women in Canada devote more time to caregiving tasks than men and are more likely to experience negative consequences as a result of their caregiving.

Our new infographic Women, Caregiving and Work in Canada explores family caregiving and work in Canada with a focus on women.

Highlights include:

  • 30% of all women in Canada reported that they provided care in 2012.
  • Women aged 45 and older reported having spent an estimated 5.8 years providing care throughout their lives, compared with 3.4 years for men.
  • Women are significantly more likely than men to report having spent 20 hours or more per week providing care (17% and 11%, respectively).
  • An estimated 72% of women caregivers aged 45 to 65 in Canada are also employed.
  • Women reported experiencing a variety of employment impacts as a result of their caregiving responsibilities: 30% reported missing at least one full day of work; 6.4% retired early, quit or lost their paid job; and 4.7% turned down a job offer or promotion.
  • Estimates show that women caregivers in Canada lost an aggregated $221 million in wages annually between 2003 and 2008 due to absenteeism, reducing work hours or leaving employment entirely.
  • Among women caregivers who have access to flexible work arrangements, half (47%) feel they cannot utilize these options without it having a negative impact on their careers.

 

Download the Women, Caregiving and Work in Canada infographic from the Vanier Institute of the Family.

 

Learn more about women, family caregiving and work in Canada:

 


Published on March 28, 2017




Lived Experience: Understanding Families Affected by Incarceration

Farhat Rehman

Incarceration has an impact on thousands of families across Canada. When a person is sentenced to time in prison, their families are often profoundly affected; they are separated from a son, daughter, sibling, parent or other relative. Feelings of stigma, guilt and shame are common, and can be compounded when the sentenced family member is also living with a mental health condition – a reality for many incarcerated individuals and their families.

My family life has been profoundly affected by incarceration ever since my son was sentenced in 2001. When the chasm of the prison system had swallowed him up, the world appeared dark with no hope of seeing daylight. Our lives took a drastic turn on that ominous day. Our family’s lives and relationships were forever changed.

As a mother, I couldn’t help but wonder over and over again why my son had committed such a serious criminal act. Why did his mind work this way? What could have been done to prevent this catastrophe? Why, after years of treatment in the mental health system, had he still fallen through the cracks? What could I have done differently that would have prevented this crime from taking place and tearing apart two families? Since then, there have been daily reminders as I speak to him and visit him in prison. For us, his family, the impact of my son’s action have sunk in gradually over time. The nightmare of prison has played havoc with his mental health conditions with all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, and it’s become a constant source of worry for our family.
 

The nightmare of prison has played havoc with his mental health conditions with all the ups and downs of a roller coaster, and it’s become a constant source of worry for our family.

 

Incarceration affects family relationships, family traditions and family futures

As we have learned, in-person visits can be traumatic for the visitor. When visiting someone in prison, you have to first pass through layers of security such as the ion scanner (a drug-scanning device known for detecting false positives). Otherwise, you risk being turned away, which can seriously impact the inmate’s prison life.

There is no occasion that is celebrated as a family where I don’t feel my son’s absence. The festivities, the good food and laughter lack the genuine happiness that can come from family gatherings. This is never really talked about openly.

Family members will occasionally ask about my son and he may receive birthday cards from family and friends, but there is a kind of hesitation to discuss such a sad subject and ruin a festive atmosphere. The fact a family member has not been seen among you for almost 16 years registers low on the Richter scale of family life.

These days, as I contemplate the possibilities of the future, I wonder if this will be the time that my son will be able to start to turn his life around. Will he convince the authorities that he is deeply remorseful and resolved to never offend again? Will he be seen as worthy of being allowed to be paroled out of prison and into the community, where he can start the long process of healing and repairing the ravages of a lengthy period of incarceration? Will he be able to reintegrate himself into our family, one that misses him terribly but has adapted to life in his absence?

The love and light of support gets families through

While I contemplate these questions daily, I am grateful for the support of those around me. When my son – and my family – first began our journey with the justice system, I felt like I was travelling down an uncharted road. Despite being well connected to community, there was no real support I could turn to where others would understand what it was like to have a son in prison.
 

Despite being well connected to community, there was no real support I could turn to where others would understand what it was like to have a son in prison.

 
In November 2010, a community activist and expert connected to the Church Council on Justice and Corrections and a crisis worker at the John Howard Society (JHS) introduced me to ‬another mother with a son in prison. We all met for the first time at JHS in December 2010 – three mothers coming together with common experiences and goals.

From this shared experience, Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support group for women, was born. The first formal MOMS meeting occurred on December 15, 2010. Our meetings take place at the local JHS building, during the first Thursday of the month. JHS has generously donated this space to us so we can meet in a location with privacy.

We now total more than 45 members, all of whom feel immensely grateful to be able to come together and climb out of the black hole we fell into when our children were convicted of an offence resulting in their incarceration. Now we come together to support each other and find ways to help them in a meaningful and constructive way. Mothers whose sons have completed their sentence or are on parole continue to support and guide the new members who join the group.

A loving family on the outside can play an important role in advocating, financially supporting and providing loving contact to offset the indelible ravages of incarceration. Through MOMs, we are able to support each other as we support our incarcerated children.
 

A loving family on the outside can play an important role in advocating, financially supporting and providing loving contact to offset the indelible ravages of incarceration.

 
The harsh realities of incarceration are with us, but together we encourage each other to take one day at a time. We have been working to ensure the justice system facilitates rehabilitation and education, with a focus on physical and mental well-being and supporting our sons or daughters while they serve their sentences and plan for their futures. This has provided us with opportunities to engage in dialogue with government and community leaders about human rights. Policies and programs benefit from understanding our lived experiences and our perspective as mothers. We have been encouraged by increased public awareness of these issues.

As you can imagine, for some moms and family members, issues of stigma and safety keep us fearful of speaking out publicly, even though we are worried sick and lose sleep thinking about the condition of our children. We do not want to add to our shame and worry by being on the receiving end of insensitive or negative comments.

As mothers affected by incarceration, we meet regularly to share our experiences and our shock, pain and heartbreak. Working together gives us energy to focus on strategies to equip ourselves with knowledge and best practices to keep ourselves and our loved ones hopeful and healthy. We are determined to achieve humane and just treatment for our loved ones in prison as we work together to strengthen the ties that bind us in our struggle as families affected by incarceration.

 


Farhat Rehman is co-founder of Mothers Offering Mutual Support (MOMS), a support group for women with incarcerated family members.

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Published on March 14, 2017




Vanier Institute and CHRC Host Roundtable on Workplace Diversity and Human Rights

On February 28, 2017, the Vanier Institute of the Family and the Canadian Human Rights Commission partnered to host the Canadian Work–Life Leadership Circle Roundtable on Workplace Diversity and Human Rights. This collaboration brought together Canadian leaders with an interest or involvement in work–life issues to enhance the ongoing conversation on work, life and family in Canada.

The roundtable included the following catalytic presentations and discussions:

  • Human Rights Perspectives and Workplace Impacts: The intersection of workplace policy and human rights moving forward (Marie-Claude Landry, Ad.E., Chief Commissioner, Canadian Human Rights Commission)
  • Diversity, Inclusion and Human Rights in the Workplace: The diversity of families and employees and their impact on workplace policy (Nicole Nussbaum, Staff Lawyer, Legal Aid Ontario)
  • Leading and Promising Practices: Workplace policy and practice, such as the duty to accommodate on the basis of family status, right to request flex and extending family-related leaves

“The concept of family is evolving every day, our workplaces should too,” said Marie-Claude Landry, Lawyer Emeritus (Ad.E.), member of the Bar and Chief Commissioner of the Canadian Human Rights Commission. “Workplace accommodation is about working differently, not less. Supporting employees to meet their family obligations means that everyone wins.”

“Human rights legislation, family law, labour law, employment law and immigration law all impact families and aren’t always in alignment,” said Vanier Institute of the Family CEO Nora Spinks. “The complexity and diversity of families is being taken into consideration with informal and formal workplace accommodations in order for employees to fulfill their multiple responsibilities at work and at home.”

 

Learn about work–life and work–family issues, and diversity in Canada with the following Vanier Institute resources:

 


Published on March 2, 2017




Vanier Institute Update: February 2017

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 What We’re Reading

 

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Supporting the Health of Mothers and Their Babies in the Context of Incarceration

Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin and Brenda Tole

When a friend told Ruth Elwood Martin that there was a need for a part-time family physician to work in a women’s correctional centre, her immediate thought was that there was no way she could work in a prison clinic. She perceived that it was the lowest kind of medical job, only for those doctors who were unable to find any other type of work.

Ruth is not sure what drew her to start practising medicine in a prison, but she did. On that first day in 1994, she felt like she was visiting another planet, passing through those gates, experiencing another world and learning from the people inside it. Ruth saw more pathology and more tragic medical diagnoses than she had seen in a year in her regular family practice in Vancouver’s West Side.

In the clinic, women told her about traumatic events they endured as children, young teenagers and women. Ruth would put down her pen, bearing witness to their lives, and listen to medical and social histories she could not imagine enduring. That first day in her new position changed Ruth’s life forever and she knew that prison health would become her calling. Ruth has often reflected that if she had been dealt the same childhood cards as the women she met, she might be sitting in their chairs.

In 2003, Brenda Tole was assigned to oversee the remodelling of an older facility that had housed provincially incarcerated men and to open it as the “Alouette Correctional Centre for Women” (ACCW), a medium-security facility to house provincially sentenced women. If you are a parent with school-aged children, you will have noticed how the school principal greatly influences the overall ethos of a school. In a similar manner, the warden of a prison influences the ethos of the institution, which in turn influences the overall health of the inmates.

From the day it opened in 2004, Brenda shaped the tone and ethos of ACCW. She maintained that if you expect both staff and incarcerated individuals to treat each other with respect, they will rise to meet those expectations, at least most of the time. That’s how she planned and that’s how she ran ACCW, not on the basis that 1% of the population may breach those expectations.

Brenda knew that the more she gave people opportunities, the more they valued the opportunities and responded positively. The more she gave responsibility to the women for doing things themselves, and the more she talked with the staff about her plans, the better the situation would be for everyone.

During a meeting of key health care players planning for health care delivery at the new ACCW, Brenda met Sarah Payne, the director of Fir Square at BC Women’s Hospital, a maternity unit for substance-using mothers. Babies who remained with moms at Fir Square had positive health outcomes compared with the health of babies that were taken away from their moms at birth.((Ronald R. Abrahams et al., “Rooming-in Compared with Standard Care for Newborns of Mothers Using Methadone or Heroin,” Canadian Family Physician 53:10 (October 2007), http://bit.ly/2k4K29I.)) Sarah asked Brenda to consider the possibility that babies born to incarcerated mothers who came to the BC Women’s Hospital for their delivery might return with their mothers to ACCW, in order to foster breastfeeding, attachment and nurturing.

Separation through incarceration negatively affects the health of new mothers and their infants

With peer-reviewed academic literature growing on the subject, Brenda had good reason to consider this proposal. Evidence shows that one of the most compelling motivators for incarcerated women is pregnancy and their children. International correctional practices that promote contact between women and their children have shown benefits for both. Positive results have been seen in visits, email, tapes, telephone calls and letters. Children of incarcerated women are negatively impacted if the contact with their mother is limited or absent. Although it is accepted around the world that nursing infants and/or small children benefit from remaining with their incarcerated mothers, this was rarely seen in Canada at that time.

Many incarcerated women have dependent children. Worldwide, an estimated 6% of incarcerated women are pregnant while serving prison time.((Marian Knight and Emma Plugge, “The Outcomes of Pregnancy Among Imprisoned Women: A Systematic Review,” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology 112:11 (December 2005), doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-0528.2005.00749.x.)) An estimated 20,000 children each year are affected by the incarceration of their mothers in Canada,((Alison Cunningham and Linda Baker, Waiting for Mommy: Giving a Voice to the Hidden Victims of Imprisonment. London, ON: Centre for Children and Families in the Justice System, 2003.)) where women tend to be held in correctional centres that are large distances from their children and families due to the limited number of correctional facilities for women across the country.

The provision of mother–child units to women in prison who have given birth to their infants while incarcerated is considered normal practice in most countries in the world. Published reports of such units exist for 22 countries, including England, Wales, Australia, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Russia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, some US states, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, Egypt, Mexico, India and Chile.((Helen Fair, “International Profile of Women’s Prisons,” World Prison Brief (February 7, 2008), http://bit.ly/2knx0BM.))((Kiran Bedi, It’s Always Possible: Transforming One of the Largest Prisons in the World. New Delhi: Stirling Paperbacks, 2006.))((Women’s Prison Association, “Mothers, Infants and Imprisonment: A National Look at Prison Nurseries and Community-Based Alternatives,” Institute on Women & Criminal Justice (May 2009), http://bit.ly/2hwPK0L.))

One of the reasons for keeping incarcerated mothers with their newborn babies is that it facilitates breastfeeding, which the World Health Organization reports has health benefits for the infant and new mother.((World Health Organization, “Infant and Young Child Feeding,” Fact Sheet (September 2016), http://bit.ly/1o6MEg8.)) According to international health experts, babies should be exclusively breastfed until they are six months old if possible, and then continue to be breastfed on demand until they are two years of age. Babies who are not breastfed may be at increased risk for diabetes, allergies and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections.((Health Canada, “Nutrition for Healthy Term Infants: Recommendations from Birth to Six Months,” A joint statement of Health Canada, Canadian Paediatric Society, Dietitians of Canada, and Breastfeeding Committee for Canada (2013), http://bit.ly/LTH03C.))

In addition to the well-known health and nutritional benefits, some research has shown that breastfeeding can contribute to psychosocial development((Grace S. Marquis, “Breastfeeding and Its Impact on Child Psychosocial and Emotional Development,” Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development (March 2008), http://bit.ly/1cESBkC.)) – the associated physical contact, eye contact and the quality of feeding promote mother–child attachment. However, establishing and maintaining breastfeeding on demand is not possible unless mothers and babies can be housed together with 24-hour contact.

Typically, mothers who return to prison without their babies after giving birth are prescribed milk-binding pills and are often prescribed antidepressants. In this situation, many mothers experience profound grief and debilitating guilt, despair and hopelessness. Many resort to substance use as a coping strategy. 

Mother–child unit developed to support well-being of incarcerated mothers and their babies

In 2005, Brenda asked Ruth, “As the prison physician, what is your opinion about the idea of incarcerated women who deliver babies in hospital being able to return here with their babies?” Ruth felt it was the most sensible idea she had heard in years, and she then expanded her prison medical practice to perform new roles, such as newborn examinations, breastfeeding coaching and addressing medical questions about newborns.

Through collaboration and partnership with several other ministries and community agencies, a mother–child unit was developed at ACCW based on the best interests of the child. With the support of Corrections Branch Headquarters, the ACCW health care team, correctional staff (both managers and frontline staff) and other provincial ministry personnel, it was decided ACCW could facilitate the return of mothers and babies to ACCW when recommended by BC Women’s Hospital and agreed to by the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD), who had final authority over the placement of the child.

The decisions to place the mother and child together at the correctional facility were made by an interdisciplinary team consisting of the key staff from BC Women’s Hospital, ACCW health care, ACCW administration and the MCFD. If the mother was Indigenous, the pertinent Indigenous communities were consulted, when applicable. The mother and her family were included in all stages of this process. The support and services that Fir Square offered the mother before and after the birth fostered the mother’s confidence in parenting and in participating in the planning of her future and that of her baby. All checks and balances were put in place to ensure that ACCW was a safe and positive environment for the mothers and babies, with the cooperation of the mothers, other incarcerated women and correctional staff.

Incarcerated women who gave birth and who were deemed by MCFD able and willing to provide appropriate parental care were allowed to keep their infants in their care while in prison. During the initiative’s duration (2005–2007), 13 babies were born to incarcerated mothers, nine of whom lived in prison with their mothers and stayed there until their mother’s release. Eight babies were breastfed for the duration of their mother’s prison stay. Fifteen months was the longest stay of any infant in prison. The babies’ health and development was monitored by the community public health nurses, ACCW health care providers and MCFD social workers.

Release planning for the majority of the mothers and babies included placement at a residential supportive residence for women with substance use histories of the Fraser Health Authority, which took mothers and their young infants. The residential placement staff aimed to facilitate the transition of these women into the community.

Being involved in the initiative with BC Women’s Hospital had a profound positive effect on the women directly involved, the correctional staff and other incarcerated women, and the ministries and community agencies who partnered with ACCW.

Mother–child unit facilitates maternal involvement

Initially, other agencies and ministries were surprised and cautious regarding the proposal of the newborn babies returning to the facility with their mothers. The team at ACCW and BC Women’s Hospital took the time and facilitated many discussions and held meetings for all stakeholders to contribute to the program’s success.

Initially, the rights of the infant to be with the mother for attachment, bonding and breastfeeding was overshadowed for some by the feeling that this “privilege” should not be afforded to incarcerated mothers. As the initiative continued, the attitudes of many began to shift from cautious and guarded to comfortable and supportive. Community agencies were willing to provide supportive services to the children and mothers within the correctional facility. The collaboration reduced the need for ACCW to develop programs and services specific to the incarcerated population.

The mothers involved expressed great joy and were grateful that they could continue to breastfeed and nurture their babies at the correctional facility. They participated in parenting classes provided by a community agency through visits by the public health nurses and the MCFD worker. They also participated in health examinations by the ACCW physician to ensure the safety and health of their babies. Several of the mothers were permitted to go out into the community on escorted passes, both before and after the birth of their babies, to participate in various programs offered by community agencies that welcomed their participation.

Other women who did not have the opportunity to be with their children had to deal with the reminder of the pain they suffered as a result of being away from their own children. Seeing the babies at ACCW triggered feelings of loss, but a general feeling of hope permeated the entire population and the atmosphere at the facility was more positive in many ways. Incarcerated women wrote about their experiences as part of a prison participatory health research project, and their writing was later published in a book titled Arresting Hope.((Ruth Elwood Martin, Mo Korchinski, Lyn Fels and Carl Leggo, eds., Arresting Hope: Women Taking Action in Prison Health Inside Out. Inanna Publications, 2014.))

Seeing other ministries and agencies support this initiative had an impact on many of the incarcerated women. Most had very little trust in government agencies due to previous negative interactions. Seeing the agencies working together to ensure the babies stay with their mothers gave them a different perspective from which to view these groups. Some voiced a new interest to work with agencies to initiate contact with their own children with whom they had lost contact, or to work to improve their own lives to make a better life for their children.

For many, seeing the mothers and babies thrive at the facility and be released into the community together continued to reinforce the feeling that this initiative was not only the child’s right but also the right thing to do for the child.

Mother–child unit upheld by BC Supreme Court

In 2008, Brenda retired from ACCW and the BC Corrections Branch Headquarters shut down the prison mother–child unit. Amanda Inglis and Patricia Block, whose babies were born after the unit had closed, became appellants in a five-year legal case that led to a BC Supreme Court hearing in May 2013. During the women’s compelling testimony, Patricia told the court that there were as many as five different people caring for her daughter while they were separated. She tried to continue to breastfeed her baby while in prison, she said, but had difficulties in doing so.

At one point, her daughter’s foster mother stopped using the breast milk that Patricia had pumped because she worried it “wasn’t good milk.” Patricia had to inform the MCFD, who then ordered the foster mother to provide the breast milk to her baby. Patricia said that pumping milk in her prison cell for her newborn baby, who was then staying with relatives, gave new meaning to the phrase “crying over spilt milk.”

In December 2013, Honourable Judge Carol Ross ruled in Inglis v. British Columbia (Minister of Public Safety) that the cancellation of the mother–child unit infringed the Charter right to security of the person (section 7) of the mothers and babies affected by the decision, and that the infringements were not in accord with the principles of fundamental justice. The ruling also held that the cancellation constituted discrimination and violated section 15(1) of the Charter, the right to equality of the members of the affected groups, namely provincially incarcerated mothers who wished to have their baby remain with them while they serve their sentence and the babies of those mothers.

The judge directed the government of British Columbia to administer the Correction Act Regulation in relation to this issue in a manner consistent with the requirements of sections 7 and 15(1), and she gave six months to provide an opportunity for the government to correct the unconstitutionality of the present situation and comply with the Court’s direction.((Inglis v. British Columbia (Minister of Public Safety), 2013 BCSC 2309 (SC), H.M.J. Ross, http://bit.ly/2jiUVk0.))

Guidelines developed to facilitate program adoption across Canada

The Collaborating Centre for Prison Health and Education (CCPHE) hosted a two-day working meeting in March 2014 at the University of British Columbia to generate best practice evidence-based guidelines to inform the implementation of mother–child units across Canada. Experts were invited to present during four panel discussions entitled “The Rights of the Child,” “The Correctional Context,” “Pathways and Programs” and “Evaluation.”

Thirty stakeholder organizations were invited to contribute to the writing of the guidelines by selecting delegate representative(s) to participate in the working meeting. Delegates included those from BC Corrections Branch, Correctional Service Canada, New Zealand Corrections and Women in2 Healing (formerly incarcerated mothers).

The CCPHE contracted Sarah Payne to write an initial guideline framework based on her analysis of the meeting proceedings. A “content analysis” method was used to ensure that all themes developing from the meeting data were captured in the emergent guidelines. As a final stage, international resources and research publications, which had been presented by experts as evidence during the working meeting, were reviewed.

The resulting Guidelines describe 16 guiding principles and best practices required for optimal child and maternal health inside a correctional facility, including the correctional context, pregnancy, birth, education, correctional and medical care, discharge planning and community partner engagement. Delegates from BC Corrections Branch and Correctional Service Canada, who attended the writing meeting, incorporated the Guidelines’ principles and best practices into their respective organizations’ policies and procedures.

Follow-up evaluations of the mother–child unit currently under way

The ACCW mother–child unit was established on the principle that babies should accompany their mothers back to the ACCW, which was supported by the 2013 BC Supreme Court ruling that deemed it unconstitutional to separate the two. Currently, the “new” BC provincial program and the federal program (as well as programs in the U.S.) are based on the principle that it is a privilege for the incarcerated mother rather than a right: incarcerated pregnant women have to submit an application and go through a difficult, stressful and protracted approval process.

Some infants now currently reside with their mothers in federal women’s correctional facilities across Canada. However, bringing babies to live with their mothers inside provincial correctional facilities has been slow, even though a refurbished mother–child unit opened in July 2014 at ACCW. More education and understanding about the cultural, epigenetic, legal and permanent health impacts of a decision to remove a baby at birth can help support maternal and infant health in prisons across Canada.

A 10-year follow-up evaluation of the ACCW mother–child unit that ran from 2005 to 2007 is currently under way. Through in-depth interviews with mothers whose infants lived at ACCW, this evaluation is exploring their experiences and the current health and social development of their children.

Each of the mothers interviewed to date have reported that the decision to have her baby live with her in prison transformed her life. Each woman attributed the quality and quantity of time that she spent with her baby in ACCW to making a positive long-term impact on the mother–child relationship, and each reported that she now has an exceptionally close relationship with her child. Each woman also spoke very affectionately about her child’s attributes, with kindness and a caring nature as foremost.

 


Dr. Ruth Elwood Martin is a Clinical Professor in UBC’s School of Population and Public Health and recipient of the 2015 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.

Brenda Tole is the former warden at the Alouette Correctional Centre for Women from the time it opened in 2004 until her retirement in 2008.

Download this article in PDF format.

Published on February 7, 2017




Vanier Institute Update: January 2017

What’s New

What We’re Reading

What’s in the Media




Leaders meet to share progress on developing military literacy in Canada

(Ottawa, ON, January 24, 2017) Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, C.C., joined representatives of the Canadian Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle yesterday, engaging with members to create resources to develop military literacy among professional associations and community organizations that will have a positive impact on the military and Veteran family experience.

Her Excellency highlighted the work being done to create a circle of support for military and Veteran families. “As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the Leadership Circle illustrates the power of collaboration and community engagement across the country for the benefit of military and Veteran families,” she said.

Canada is home to 40,000 Regular Force military families, 14,000 Reserve Force families and more than 600,000 Veterans. They access a variety of programs and services in their neighbourhoods, including child care and eldercare, health and mental health, education, employment and transition support. Community programs are more inclusive and welcoming of military and Veteran families when professionals and practitioners have a high degree of military literacy – awareness of their experiences and unique “military life stressors” (i.e. high mobility, separation and risk). The Leadership Circle facilitates innovative partnerships and collaborations based on building military literacy.

Statistics on Military and Veteran families in Canada:

  • In the mid-1990s, 80% of military families in Canada lived ON a base – today, 85% live OFF-base
  • 49% of serving CAF members and 37% of Veterans have children under 18
  • The majority (54%) of surveyed children in military families say they feel pride in their deployed parent
  • 87% of surveyed CAF partners say they are able to cope emotionally with their partner’s absence during deployment
  • 3 in 10 surveyed CAF partners spouses say their career has NOT been affected by their partner’s military service
  • 8% of Veterans report living with low income, compared with 15% of Canadians

“The military lifestyle is unique and full of adventure. The effectiveness and well-being of our military members is underpinned by their strong, resilient, and proud military families who remain that way due to the programs and services delivered by the types of organizations represented in the Leadership Circle,” said Major General Wayne Eyre, Deputy Commander Military Personnel Command.

“Canadian military and Veteran families can thrive if they have access to appropriate care and support. Since military families move so frequently, they often face special challenges like finding a family doctor or continuing educational progress for their children when they relocate to a new community, or a new province,” said Colonel Dan Harris, Director, Military Family Services and Co-Chair, Canadian Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle. “Military Family Services, as a co-founder of the Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle, is happy to collaborate with our many committed partners to enhance military literacy among associations and organizations in Canada.”

“The true value of the Leadership Circle is fully realized as committed members continue to work together to produce useful resources, develop innovative programs and establish strong relationships,” added Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family and Co-Chair of the Canadian Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle.

“When a man or woman serves in the Canadian Armed Forces, the entire family serves with them.  Sharing innovative ideas is key; and providing reliable information for professionals and community practitioners about the unique lifestyle of military and Veteran families is vital to building awareness,” said Karen McCrimmon, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence, who also attended the event.  “Veterans Affairs Canada is proud to be working with so many committed organizations to enhance understanding, access, resources and care for Veteran families.”

The Canadian Military and Veteran Families Leadership Circle is a collaboration between organizations and leaders from across the country that is building awareness, capacity, competency and community in support of military and Veteran families. This growing initiative is currently comprised of more than 60 individuals from over 50 organizations, including 38 member organizations, who are working with and for military and Veteran families in Canada.

 


Learn about the Leadership Circle Hubs.

Watch the video message to Leadership Circle members and participants from Hon. Kent Hehr, Minister of Veterans Affairs and Associate Minister of National Defence.

Learn about military and Veteran families in Canada with A Snapshot of Military and Veteran Families in Canada.

Watch the CFPC video about ensuring equitable access to quality health care for military families.