Remembering Alan Mirabelli

Al MacKay

Where does one begin in remembering Alan Mirabelli and the Vanier Institute of the Family?

The request from Nora Spinks to put together a few words about Alan’s contribution to the Vanier Institute seemed simple at the time. But as the thoughts began circling, it became clear this was a much bigger request, because the man in question was a complex combination of many things to those who knew him: friend, colleague, mentor, author, lecturer, advocate, administrator, teacher, storyteller, craftsman, artist, father, grandfather, community builder,  inspirer, the conscience of a nation in regard to families and a dignified man during his life, especially so in the manner of his leaving it.

Alan was a complex combination of many things to those who knew him.

Alan was as much at home making sense of multi-faceted societal issues to MPs at a parliamentary committee as he was in his workshop, turning a perfect leg for a mahogany side table, or out in the field, creating incredible photographic art with his camera. He was a Renaissance man for his generation.

How does one cover that scope of a person? Perhaps by focusing on just one issue, about which many may be unaware.

I first encountered Alan not directly through the Institute, but in my role dealing with the issue of violence on television on behalf of the Canadian television industry. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was considerable public controversy about increased violence in Canada, in the wake of the Montreal Massacre of 14 young women at École Polytechnique. Many wondered if there was a connection with how violence was depicted in television programs, and whether too much violent programming was being broadcast. CRTC Chair Keith Spicer commissioned studies and held public consultations. There were also parliamentary hearings and reports. Two major conferences were convened and it was during those where I encountered Alan.

For me as the point person for the broadcasting industry at these various events, it was very much like heading into the lion’s den. There were many voices calling for increased government control over what was aired, and for programming to be more “Anne of Green Gables” than hard-edged dramas. As the debate evolved, Alan emerged as one of the most reasonable voices to be heard.

At the time he was involved as a representative of the Vanier Institute at the Alliance for Children and Television, which championed programming for children, and so he had a good understanding of the issues. Because of the solid reputation that he and Bob Glossop had created for the Vanier Institute, his words carried considerable weight and were carefully listened to.

Alan’s view was that this issue was less about the content of television programs, rather it was more about how much – and what kind of – television children were watching, and how parents needed to be very involved in their children’s viewing, especially the younger ones.

Where some speakers at these conferences had called for any depictions of violence to be excised, even from news programs, Alan said it was vitally important for parents to be watching with their children to explain what they were seeing and provide context, no matter what type of program was being viewed. He sympathized but disagreed with parents who used TV as just a convenient babysitter, by not monitoring or caring what channels/programming their children were watching, either on television stations or via rental tapes on a VCR.

Alan’s calm and clearly articulated arguments had a considerable effect on the tenor of discussions at these major events, and helped move the conversation away from censorship (which would have been problematic on a wide range of levels) toward what responsibilities the industry ought to assume in terms of helping families make informed decisions on what types of programming children should be watching, and urging parents to be cautious about how much television their children were viewing.

I made sure to introduce myself and told him how much I appreciated his reasoned approach. I asked to stay in touch and be open to my seeking his counsel as the process unfolded over the coming months. As the industry moved to create a strong Code to deal with the issue, which would include scheduling parameters, a program rating system, the use of viewer advisories and on-screen icons as well as V-chip technology, his advice was exceedingly useful. It was not that he was easy on the industry – he challenged many of our assumptions and constantly asked how what we were doing would benefit stressed parents who wanted the best for their children.

It was his persistent refrain – to governments at all levels, community groups and civic organizations, and individual Canadians: what are you doing to make life better for Canadian families? Are you looking at your policies and your programs through a family lens? It was a constant theme as he spent years travelling the country, giving speeches, making presentations and explaining family issues to journalists.

Alan challenged many of our assumptions and constantly asked how what we were doing would benefit stressed parents who wanted the best for their children.

If one is looking for a legacy, it can be found in the unique pairing of the different yet complementary strengths of Alan Mirabelli and Bob Glossop. They nurtured an independent organization, created its impeccable reputation both at home and internationally by producing highly relevant policy research, and ensured it was financially strong enough to thrive during difficult economic times that saw many other social policy organizations shutter their doors.

Some months after I had left the local Ottawa television station and was changing careers, Alan called to ask if I would be interested in becoming a Vanier Board member. It was a challenging time for me, and to be sought after by an organization of such stature as the Vanier Institute meant a great deal.

My some 10 years of involvement with the Institute moved from Board member to Treasurer, to President, and then later, as the Interim Executive Director assisting with leadership transitions after both Alan and Bob had retired.

Alan and my family stayed in touch after I left the Institute – he was the recipient of many jars of my wife’s preserves and pasta sauce, which he enjoyed with relish and lauded at every possible opportunity. And he dropped in for tea from time to time when he was in town for an appointment or meeting. He felt very much at home at our table, especially when our now-adult children were there.

Alan used to say he somehow managed to have the right type of President he needed at any particular time. My response was that the Vanier Institute, what it stood for, what it accomplished and what it taught me, was very much what I needed at that point in my life and my career. For that and for his enduring friendship, I am and will always be incredibly grateful to Alan Mirabelli.

Godspeed, my friend.

Al MacKay

Al MacKay is a former Board member, President and interim Executive Director of the Vanier Institute of the Family.


Published on January 10, 2018




Alan Mirabelli: A Career on Behalf of Canada’s Families

Dr. Robert Glossop

For more than 30 years, the Vanier Institute of the Family called upon the talents and commitment of Alan Mirabelli in order to “promote the well-being of Canada’s families.” By virtue of his contributions, the organization grew to be respected as a valued national resource of authoritative information and insight about Canada’s families.

Responsible for the overall management and administration of the Institute, Alan advised successive Boards of Directors about the challenges confronting all organizations as well as those unique to the not-for-profit and charitable sector. Consistently over the years, the Institute’s executive officers expressed confidence and trust in the information and perspective that Alan provided to them as they addressed a long list of organizational duties including: finances, budgets, accounts and investment practices; staffing and recruitment; corporate reporting to Parliament; and, last but not least, technological innovation during his tenure spanning a period of time from IBM typewriters and rotary dial phones to today’s centralized servers, organizational management software and information security systems.

As significant as these administrative duties were to those working within the Institute, Alan’s unique legacy to the Vanier Institute had much more to do with how the world beyond the front doors of its offices learned about and learned from the work of its researchers and writers. As Director of Communications, Alan insisted that the Institute would not simply seek to use the media to get its message out but would commit itself to being of use to the media. Too often, organizations with a mandate to gather and disseminate information as a public good take it for granted that the “media” would simply make space for a press release at a moment’s notice.

Alan’s unique legacy to the Vanier Institute had much more to do with how the world beyond the front doors of its offices learned about and learned from the work of its researchers and writers.

Alan knew that if your intention was to communicate meaningful content, you had to build a community of shared interest. That required an investment in building a sustained relationship of mutual respect and trust with journalists and broadcasters. To implement this communications strategy, Alan extracted from his colleagues the promise that the Institute would respond to all media requests within hours. Moreover, if the topic of the inquiry was not one that the Institute could address directly, we would invest time and energy to identify a reliable source of expertise drawn from the not-for-profit sector or from academia. In an era prior to “fake news,” the Vanier Institute succeeded in establishing itself as reliable and trustworthy and, in turn, could, in almost all circumstances, trust the media to work with us to fulfill our mandate to inform and influence a broad range of audiences, including teachers and students at all grade levels, business leaders, community associations, philanthropists, elected officials, government advisors and, last but not least, those citizens we referred to as Mr. and Ms. Smith on Elm Street.

Working closely with academic researchers and with our colleagues at Statistics Canada, the Institute was able to assemble an exceptionally strong body of evidence about the trends regarding what families looked like, what they did and how they felt. This work drew together research from a broad range of disciplines including sociology, history, economics, psychology and social psychology, education, social work, home economics, philosophy, ethics, public administration and more.

So, the Institute could legitimately claim to know a lot about the character, circumstances and prospects of Canada’s families; the challenge that Alan faced, as Director of Communications, was how it could share that information effectively with the broad range of audiences it sought to encourage to take family matters seriously as though families mattered.

In order to stimulate recognition of the private consequences of public decisions and the public consequences of private decisions, the Vanier Institute worked hard to assemble knowledge about family trends and public policies, but it worked just as hard to find the compelling stories behind the statistics, to understand the interests of the various audiences it was invited to address, to print and publish its research findings in engaging and accessible formats and to make itself available to assist Canadians in understanding why family matters really do matter.

Dr. Robert Glossop is a former Executive Director of Research and Programs at the Vanier Institute of the Family and is currently a member of the Institute’s Alumni Network.


Published on January 9, 2018




Grandparent Health and Family Well-Being

Rachel Margolis, Ph.D.

Canada’s 7.1 million grandparents and great-grandparents make unique, diverse and valuable contributions to families and society, serving as role models, nurturers, historians, sources of experiential knowledge and more. As with the general population, the grandparent population in Canada is aging rapidly, sparking some concern in the media and public discourse about the potential impact of this “grey tsunami.”

However, despite being older, data show that the health of grandparents has improved over the past 30 years. This trend can positively impact families, since healthy grandparents can have a higher capacity to contribute to family life and help younger generations manage family responsibilities such as child care and household finances.

Improving grandparent health enhances their capacity to contribute to family life and help younger generations manage family responsibilities.

Canada is aging, and so are its grandparents

The aging of the grandparent population mirrors broader population aging trends across the country. According to the most recent Census in 2016, 16.9% of Canada’s population are seniors, nearly double the share in 1981 (9.6%) and the highest proportion to date. This growth is expected to continue over the next several decades: projections show that nearly one-quarter (23%) of Canadians will be 65 or older by 2031. Furthermore, the oldest Canadians (aged 100 and over) are currently the fastest-growing age group: there were 8,200 centenarians in 2016 (up 41% since 2011), and projections from Statistics Canada show that this group is likely to reach nearly 40,000 by 2051.

In this context, it’s perhaps no surprise that the overall grandparent population is also aging. The share of grandparents who are seniors grew from 41% in 1985 to 53% in 2011, and the share of grandparents who are aged 80 and older has grown even faster, nearly doubling from 6.8% in 1985 to 13.5% in 2011.

Life expectancy increases fuel grandparent population aging

One of the underlying factors fuelling the aging of the grandparent population is the fact that Canadians are living longer. According to Statistics Canada, life expectancy at birth has continued to rise steadily, reaching 83.8 years for women and 79.6 years for men in 2011–2013. This represents an increase of about a decade over the past half-century, with women and men gaining 9.5 years and 11.2 years, respectively, since the years 1960–1962.

In addition, more people are reaching seniorhood than in the past because of mortality declines at ages below age 65. Data from Statistics Canada shows that the average share of female newborns who can expect to reach age 65 rose from 86% for those born in 1980–1982 to 92% for those born in 2011–2013, while this share increased from 75% to 87% for males during the same period.

People are also living longer as seniors, as reflected in ongoing increases in life expectancy at age 65 – a useful measure of the well-being of older populations since it excludes mortality for those who do not reach seniorhood. According to estimates from Statistics Canada, life expectancy at age 65 in 2011–2013 was 21.9 years for women and 19 years for men – up by 3 years and 4.4 years, respectively, from 1980 to 1982.

Delayed fertility contributes to the aging of the grandparent population since it increases the age of transitioning into grandparenthood.

Another contributing factor to the aging of grandparents is the fact that on average, women are having children at older ages than in the past – a fertility trend that increases the age of transitioning into grandparenthood. The average age of first-time mothers has risen steadily since 1970, from 23.7 to 28.8 years in 2013. The number of first-time mothers aged 40 and older has also grown, rising from 1,172 in 1993 to 3,648 in 2013 (+210%). As more women postpone childbearing until later in life, their transition to grandparenthood will also likely occur later. Today’s new grandparents are baby boomers, a generation in which many women delayed fertility for education and work experience. Their children are also having children later, and the fertility postponement of two generations together is influencing the pattern of later entry into grandparenthood.

Despite the aging of grandparents, grandparenthood accounts for a growing portion of many people’s lives. Even though people are becoming grandparents later, they are living longer as grandparents. The longer period of time spent in the grandparent role can extend opportunities for forming, nurturing and strengthening relationships with younger generations. According to my recent research, the average number of years that someone can expect to spent as a grandparent given today’s demography in Canada is 24.3 years for women and 18.9 years for men – that’s approximately two decades in which they can continue to play a major role in family life.

Despite being older, grandparents are healthier

In addition to living longer, data from the General Social Survey (GSS) suggest that grandparents in Canada today are far more likely to report living in good health than in the past. The proportion who rate their health as “good/very good/excellent” has increased from 70% in 1985 to 77% in 2011, while the share reporting “fair/poor” health has fallen from 31% to 23%. Overall, the odds of grandparents reporting that they are in good health are 44% higher in 2011 than in 1985.

A number of trends have contributed to health improvements among grandparents and older Canadians in general over the past half-century. There have been significant advances in public health that have facilitated disease prevention, detection and treatment. Among other factors, this has led to major reductions in deaths from circulatory system diseases (e.g. heart disease), which has been one of the biggest contributors to gains in life expectancy among men over the past half-century.

Another factor contributing to improvements in the health of grandparents in Canada is the rising educational attainment of this population. Research shows that education can improve health both in direct and indirect ways throughout life. Direct impacts can include enhancing one’s health literacy, knowledge, interactions with the health care system and patients’ ability and willingness to advocate for themselves when engaging with health care providers. Indirect impacts can include an increase in one’s resources (e.g. income) or occupational opportunities (e.g. being less likely to have a physically demanding and/or risky job, and more likely to have a job with health benefits).

Education has been associated with greater health, which is significant because the share of grandparents who have completed post-secondary education has more than tripled over the past three decades.

These are important factors to consider in the Canadian context, since the share of grandparents who have completed post-secondary education has more than tripled over the past three decades, from 13% in 1985 to nearly 40% by 2011.

Healthy grandparents can facilitate family well-being

Grandparent health can have a significant impact on families. When a grandparent (or multiple grandparents) is living in poor health, families are often the first to provide, manage or pay for care that supports their well-being. This is particularly true for senior grandparents receiving care at home; the Health Council of Canada estimates that families provide between 70% and 75% of all home care received by seniors in Canada.

Data from the 2012 GSS show that nearly 3 in 10 Canadians (28%) reported providing caregiving to a family member in the past year, and aging-related needs were the most commonly cited reason for care (reported by 28% of caregivers). Grandparents accounted for 13% of all Canadians who received care, and they were also the most frequent recipients of young caregivers’ (aged 15 to 29) assistance, 4 in 10 of whom cited a grandparent as the primary recipient.

While 95% of caregivers say they’re effectively coping with their caregiving responsibilities, research has found that in some contexts, it can have a negative impact on their well-being, career development and family finances. This can be particularly true for the three-quarters of caregivers who are also in the paid labour force, accounting for more than one-third of all working Canadians.

On the other hand, when grandparents are living in good health, families can benefit in a variety of ways. In addition to the fact that it means they are less likely to require caregiving assistance, they are also more likely to be able to make positive contributions to family life, such as providing child care and contributing to family finances.

Grandparents provide child care to younger generations

Many grandparents play an important role in caring for their grandchildren, which can help parents in the “middle generation” manage their child care and paid work responsibilities. A number of economic, social and environmental trends have converged in recent decades that have increased the significant contributions they make to families with regard to child care.

Many grandparents play an important role in caring for their grandchildren, which can help parents in the “middle generation” manage their child care and paid work responsibilities.

Over the past four decades, the share of dual-earner couples in Canada has increased; in 1976, 36% of couples with children included two earners, a rate that nearly doubled to 69% by 2014. In more than half of these couples (51%), both parents worked full-time, which means they were more likely to rely on non-parental care for their children. This is supported by data from the 2011 GSS: while nearly half (46%) of all parents reported relying on some type of child care for their children aged 14 years and younger in the past year, the rate was higher (71%) for dual-earner parents with children aged 0 to 4 and children aged 5 to 14 (49%).

The evolution in family structure and composition across generations has also contributed to more families relying on non-parental care for their children. The share of lone-parent families has increased significantly over the past 50 years, rising from 8.4% of all families in 1961 to approximately 16% in 2016. Data from the 2011 GSS show that nearly 6 in 10 lone parents of children aged 4 and under (58%) report that they rely on non-parental care.

Sometimes grandparents are solely responsible for raising their grandchildren when no middle (i.e. parent) generation is present. The 2011 GSS counted 51,000 of these “skip-generation families” in Canada, which was home to 12% of all grandparents who live with their grandchildren. Some of those who live with their children are more likely than others to live in skip-generation homes, such as people reporting a First Nations (28%), Métis (28%) or Inuit (18%) identity (compared with 11% among the non-Indigenous population).

Lastly, many parents may rely on grandparents for help with child care if they can’t find quality, regulated child care spaces in their communities. In 2014, the availability in regulated, centre-based child care spaces was only sufficient for one-quarter (24%) of children aged 5 and under across Canada. While this is a significant increase from 12% in 1992, it still leaves more than 3 in 4 children in this age group without an available regulated child care space. The availability of child care (or a lack thereof) is significant, since it can affect whether or not parents in coupled families can both participate in the paid labour market.

The cost of child care can also lead parents to turn to grandparents for child care assistance. This is particularly true for families living in urban centres. One 2015 study on the cost of child care in Canadian cities, which used administrative fee data and randomized phone surveys conducted with child care centres and homes, found that the highest rates in Canada were in Toronto, where estimates showed median unsubsidized rates of $1,736 per month for full-day infant care (under 18 months of age) and $1,325 for toddlers (aged 1½ to 3).

Grandparent involvement can enhance child well-being

Regardless of the reason grandparents spend time with their grandchildren, their involvement in family life can benefit the well-being of children. Studies have shown that grandparent involvement in family life is significantly associated with child well-being – in particular, it has been associated with greater prosocial behaviours and school involvement. The benefits aren’t limited to children, either, as other research has shown that close relationships between grandparents and grandchildren can have a positive impact on mental health for both. Among First Nations families, grandparents have also been found to play an important role in supporting cultural health and healing among younger generations.

Research shows that grandparent involvement in family life is significantly associated with child well-being, including greater prosocial behaviours and school involvement.

The broader context of improving grandparent health is good news for many families, since their better health can make it easier to participate in activities with children and grandchildren, and research shows that these interactions with younger kin can be more rewarding in this context.

Many grandparents play an important role in family finances

Improvements in grandparent health can also enhance their capacity to engage in paid work, which can improve their own finances and facilitate contributions to younger generations.

Improvements in grandparent health also enhance their capacity to engage in paid work, which can improve their own finances and facilitate contributions to younger generations.

While there isn’t much recent data on the employment patterns of grandparents in Canada per se, rising rates of working seniors have been well documented over the past several decades. Between 1997 and 2003, the paid labour force participation rate for seniors ranged between 6% and 7%, but this has steadily increased to around 14% in the first half of 2017 (and an even higher rate of 27% for those aged 65 to 69). Since approximately 8 in 10 seniors in Canada are grandparents, it’s clear that a growing number of grandparents are working today.

The potential for grandparents to contribute to family finances through paid work can be particularly important for the 8% who live in multi-generational households. According to data from the 2016 Census, this is the fastest-growing household type, having grown in number by nearly 38% between 2011 and 2016 to reach 403,810 homes. Similar to patterns found among skip-generation families, this living arrangement is more common among Indigenous and immigrant families, which both represent a growing share of families in Canada.

Skip-generation living arrangements are more common among Indigenous and immigrant families, which both represent a growing share of families in Canada.

Data from the 2011 GSS showed that among the 584,000 grandparents living in these types of homes, more than half (50.3%) reported that they have financial responsibilities in the household. Some were more likely than others to contribute to family finances: rates were significantly higher for those living in skip-generation households (80%) and multi-generational households with a lone-parent middle generation (75%).

Opportunities are growing for grandparent–family relationships

While the aging of the general and grandparent population in Canada presents certain societal challenges, notably with regard to community care, housing, transportation and income security, their rising life expectancy and improving health present growing opportunities for individuals and families. Many grandparents already help younger generations with fulfilling family responsibilities, such as child care and managing family finances, and this will continue in the years ahead – a positive side of the story that is often lost in narratives about the “grey tsunami.”

As the health of grandparents has improved over the years, many have been able to enjoy a greater quantity and quality of relationships with younger family members. As families adapt and react to their evolving social, economic and cultural contexts, they will continue to play an important – and likely growing – role in family life for generations to come.

 


Rachel Margolis, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Western Ontario.

Download this article in PDF format.

All references and source information can be found in the PDF version of this article.

Published on September 5, 2017




Employment Mobility and Family Gentrification in Montreal

Steven High (Concordia University)
Lysiane Goulet Gervais (Concordia University)
Michelle Duchesneau (Concordia University)
Dany Guay-Bélanger (Carleton University)

As Canada’s economy evolves, along with the opportunities and constraints it provides, family members adapt to fulfill their responsibilities at home and at work. For many family members, this can involve travelling long distances for work and being away from home for days, weeks or even months at a time. Since 2012, the On the Move Partnership((On the Move is a cross-sectoral partnership involving 40 researchers from 17 disciplines and 22 universities across Canada and around the world that is funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).)) has been exploring this phenomenon of employment-related geographic mobility (E-RGM) and has found that more Canadians than ever before are regularly commuting to work over longer distances in “complex and nuanced” patterns.((Michael Hann, Deatra Walsh and Barbara Neis, “At the Crossroads: Geography, Gender and Occupational Sector in Employment-Related Geographical Mobility,” Canadian Studies in Population, 41:3–4 (2014).))

Most people think of rural work environments such as northern gas and oil or mining worksites when examining the impact of mobile work and rarely consider Canada’s inner-city regions, yet these emerging labour patterns are shaping the social and economic environments of communities of all kinds.

As part of the On the Move Partnership, we have explored the impact of mobile work in urban centres through extensive interviews over the past two years with Canadians engaged in mobile work, which ranged from extended daily commutes to extended travel across Quebec and around the world. The workers and families in this study were living in Montreal’s Southwest neighbourhoods of Little Burgundy, Saint-Henri and Pointe-Saint-Charles. Once heavily industrialized, these inner-city areas experienced social and economic change as a result of the rapid deindustrialization and out-migration that occurred during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. This was followed by a period of family gentrification, as middle-class people moved into the areas with their loved ones.

Families “localize” resource access to manage responsibilities despite absences

Our interview findings suggest that there is a connection between employment mobility and family gentrification. Families with sufficient financial resources are choosing to live in inner-city neighbourhoods in order to “localize” other aspects of their lives. This localization includes (but is not limited to) ensuring that community resources such as neighbourhood daycares and schools, playgrounds, stores and public transportation (especially the city’s metro system and the airport express bus) are readily accessible to households in which a family member is engaged in mobile work.
 

One parent’s mobility often leads to the relative immobility of other family members, who then often become more dependent on proximity to community resources.

 
Proximity to the central city serves to counterbalance the prolonged absences of family members resulting from work-related mobility. Among two-parent families, since this mobility results in an absence from the family home, one parent’s mobility often leads to the relative immobility of other family members, who then often become more dependent on proximity to community resources.

Mobile work adds complexity to family life and relationships

In this study, interviewed parents shared their reflections on the impact of mobile work on their children and on family life. One mother, Imane,((First names have been changed to ensure privacy.)) expressed concern about the impact of the work-related mobility on her children’s physical health: “The funny thing is that young kids tend to stress without letting you know. And the only way that they let you know is that they get sick. So, when he travels a lot, they get sick a lot. It is their way of saying that they are not happy about this situation.”
 

“… young kids tend to stress without letting you know. And the only way that they let you know is that they get sick. So, when he travels a lot, they get sick a lot. It is their way of saying that they are not happy about this situation.” (study participant)

 
Family members engaged in mobile work expressed concerns about managing their parenting roles when they are often away from home. Some shared feelings of sadness and a longing to be more involved in their children’s lives and frustration around having to schedule their children’s activities according to their travel plans – something that surfaced repeatedly in the interviews.

One mobile-working mother, Kate, told us that returning home after being away for weeks at a time made her feel as though she had missed large chunks of her son’s development and growth. With both Kate and her partner, Russell, being mobile workers, even when one is home, the other is frequently away. Life in not quite the same in those moments, she says, “Whether it is Russell or whether it is me, we are always waiting a little bit to live.”

Among our interviewees, Imane had the most to say about the impact of mobile work on family life. If her interview had a recurring theme, it would be that her family life in the context of mobile work is “complicated.” Asked about the effect of her husband’s travels on the family, she replies, “That’s kind of complicated, because we need help with the kids. I have to get the girls ready.” The eldest is sent to school with friends, while Imane takes her youngest to daycare. She picks them up at the end of the day and prepares dinner without her partner being there. “It’s not just taking care of the kids, it’s doing everything like taking care of the home yourself, doing groceries, meals, plus the activities, the school and daycare. Life gets complicated.” Her husband’s absence leaves her with little flexibility and a significantly increased family workload. “I can’t even get sick,” she says.

Parents who stay “back home” adapt to accommodate their partners’ mobility

As she is self-employed, Imane usually has to work after the kids are asleep: “But when he’s away, I am so tired that I can’t really work when the girls sleep.” As a result, her own work is often left undone, something she finds stressful. Luckily, Imane’s mother lives in Montreal and helps manage family roles and responsibilities, such as cooking, laundry or picking up the girls. She stressed the importance of maintaining a routine, even when her husband is away for extended periods: “Life doesn’t change when he is away… [so] we continue living our life as usual.” Summing up things, Imane says, “You continue the routines and the busy schedule of having kids.”

Family life moves on even when a parent is away at work. One mobile worker, Pierre, explained that travelling for work wasn’t an issue before his daughter was born. Now, he is concerned about spending time with her, since his long commutes mean that when he leaves and arrives from work she is usually asleep. He is also worried that travelling for work will affect his capacity to take on his share of familial responsibilities. Several interviewees also said that they used to travel as a family when one of them had to work away from home, but that they stopped once their children reached school age. Imane’s family used to travel together but didn’t want to take the children out of school too often, so they now only rarely accompany their father when he travels for work.

Families use technology to maintain and manage family relationships

Families are increasingly using technology and new media to bridge the distance and remain present in family life. While not all families have access to these tools, these “virtual intimacies” are a growing reality and can help provide continuity in family rituals and relationships in the context of family absences.((R. Wilding, “‘Virtual’ Intimacies? Families Communicating Across Transnational Contexts,” Global Networks 6:2 (February 28, 2006), doi:10.1111/j.1471-0374.2006.00137.x.))
 

“Virtual intimacies” are a growing reality and can help provide continuity in family rituals and relationships in the context of family absences.

 
A number of study participants spoke of the importance of FaceTime, Skype and other social media in maintaining a connection to home while away. For example, while he’s away, Russell “continues to participate in some of the rituals of life with a child, such as bedtime stories and goodnight songs via Skype.” His partner, Kate, elaborates, “This didn’t exist before, 12 years ago, let’s say. It wasn’t possible – it was phone bills through the roof [laughs]. Nowadays, it is possible to communicate for a small charge or no cost at all; it really, really, really helps to save the day.” Imane says that when her husband travels internationally, communication can be difficult. If he is in India or Pakistan, there is a 10- or 11-hour difference, which can make it hard to find the right time to connect. Also, she says that “the girls don’t like the phone so much, so yeah, it’s not easy.” Her eldest would “barely say ‘Hi, I’m good, everything’s good. Here’s Mom.’” At only 3 years of age, her youngest child doesn’t really speak on the phone yet.

Children notice routine changes resulting from mobility

In order to gain an intergenerational understanding of how work mobility affects family life, we interviewed four children ages 5 to 7 as part of the study. Much of what these children shared reinforced what the parents said, while other elements of the interviews revealed a different perspective. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, the children mainly recall the disruptions in their routine.

They fondly remember staying up late or eating certain foods as joyous occasions when the travelling parent is away. June talked about being sad that her mom, Laura, was away but also appreciates the extra time with dad and the extra privileges she receives, “I’m sad when mom is gone, but I am also happy because I get to stay up late.” Some of the children remember receiving and giving gifts upon return and other people caring for them: grandparents, family friends and others.

Families adapt to fulfill their responsibilities

By focusing on three different locations, our place-based approach to the issue of employment mobility allowed us to view mobility from another perspective. This approach highlighted some of the impacts on family life while considering the full spectrum of mobile work, from extended daily commuters to regular travellers who leave home for extended periods. It also encouraged us to consider the relationship between employment mobility and family fixity (aspects of family life that are geographically bound or fixed), particularly as it plays out in “local” processes of urban gentrification. Our research highlighted that while families experience a number of impacts resulting from mobile work, they evolve and adjust in diverse ways – including living close to community resources, adapting family relationships and using technology – to manage their multiple responsibilities.

 


Steven High is a Professor of History at Concordia University and co-founder of the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling.

Lysiane Goulet Gervais recently graduated from Concordia University’s art therapy program with a master’s degree.

Michelle Duchesneau is a graduate student at Concordia University’s School for Community and Public Affairs.

Dany Guay-Bélanger is currently working toward a master’s degree in the public history program at Carleton University.

Photo: New condominium complexes now line Montreal’s Lachine Canal. Photograph by David W. Lewis.

Download this article in PDF format.

Published on April 25, 2017

 




Polyamory in Canada: 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.

Download this article in PDF format.

Published on April 11, 2017