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Family Well-being During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Conference Transcript

May 22, 2020

On Friday, May 15, 2020, the Vanier Institute of the Family and the COVID-19 Social Impacts Network hosted an online conference focused on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family well-being in Canada coinciding with International Day of Families.

The English transcript for this event appears below.



TRANSCRIPT* (check against delivery)

Tasha Kheiriddin: Good morning everyone. We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which we are gathered is the traditional and unceded territory of the Algonquin nation. We would also like to acknowledge the lands on which all of you are participating from wherever you’re watching this in your home in Turtle Island. La reconnaissance de ces territoires n’est que le début de l’établissement de relations significatives et réciproques avec les peuples et les communautés – les Premières Nations, les Inuits et les Métis. We also want to pay our respect to Indigenous elders past and present emerging. Meegwetch.

Welcome everyone. Bonjour tout le monde. Welcome to the online conference, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on family well-being in Canada. On this auspicious day, it is celebrating the United Nations International Day of Families, and it’s being hosted by some institutes that have a great interest in the subject, notably the Vanier Institute in partnership with the Association for Canadian Studies and the COVID-19 Social Impact Network.

For those who don’t know me, my name is Tasha Kheiriddin and I’m a public policy analyst and media commentator. And most importantly today, I’m a mom of one and a step-mom of two. So I’m very interested to see all the insights that will be shared about how this pandemic is affecting families across the country. Cette conférence en ligne fait partie d’une série de conférences organisées à l’égard des impacts sociaux de la COVID‑19. Elles sont généreusement financées par le Conseil de recherches en sciences humaines, alors nous vous remercions.

Our first speaker is none other than the CEO of the Vanier Institute, Nora Spinks. She’s been working with individuals and organizations that study, serve and support families to mobilize knowledge and understanding of the national conversation around families in Canada. C’est une conférencière et auteure réputée qui cherche toujours à favoriser la création de politiques et de programmes innovateurs axés sur la santé et le bien-être, les soins, la flexibilité de la vie et du travail… Nora has also served as an advisor and consultant to leaders in business, law, labour, government and community. Please welcome Nora Spinks.

Nora Spinks: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here. Let me just begin by thanking Tasha for her wonderful presentation that she’s been giving us today. I just want to begin by acknowledging Jack Jedwab, and all the folks over at the Social Impact Network and the Association of Canadian Studies as well as the Vanier Institute teams who have pulled together all this data, all this analysis and all this event for you today.

There’s more than 50 organizations who are actively involved in this Social Impact Network. And we’re doing our best to gather this data in real time and share it with you as quickly as possible in order to make sure that people are able to make evidence-based decisions and that evidence is used for innovation and creativity. We are going to be sharing with you today, a number of data points and analysis from a number of studies, one being a week over week poll that we’ve been doing with different families across the country.

We’ve been asking them questions about how they’re doing and what they’re doing and how they’re getting along and some of their fears, aspirations and some of their visions and hopes for the future. We’re also going to share with you some data from Statistics Canada and the number of research surveys that they have underway right now or recently conducted, and crowdsourcing surveys as well as other panels that are going on, as well as a number of other organizations such as UNICEF and our other partners who are collecting data and we’re sharing that with you today.

We are looking at families from a number of perspectives, obviously finances is the first area that people focus on, particularly those who have lost their jobs or are receiving less income than they are accustomed to. But we’re also looking at families and their debt; many are incurring new debt if they have suffered a loss of job or income. But we’re also hearing from middle income families who have maintained their income, but have reduced their expenditures and are actually beginning to pay off their household debt. So we are seeing a gap there.

We’re also looking at children and childhood and how children are faring and what that’s going to mean for them in the short term and long term. We’ve been looking at how they’re engaging in community and how they’re engaging with their families, as well as how they’re managing without close contact with their friends. We’ve been looking at young adults and how they’re managing both with their education and their employment but also how they’re forming relationships or maintaining the friendships that they already have. We’ve been looking at how all adults are maintaining their relationships or engaging in or starting committed relationships; how people are parenting or co-parenting, solo parenting, both those who are living with their co-parents, but also those who may be living in different households as a result of separation or divorce. We’re looking at families and the way in which they’re connecting and whether their conversations are more meaningful, and most of them are, which is good news.

We’re also looking at fathers – men in particular are indicating that they’re having more meaningful conversations with their partners and are engaging more actively in parenting. We’re looking at mothers and how they’re faring and how they’re coping with all of the pressures that they’re facing, with household management, raising children as well as trying to maintain income and connection to their employment. We’re also looking at special situations. So, families with unique perspectives. We’re leaning heavily on the military families who have tips and strategies who are often separated and are dealing with unpredictable situations and how they’ve managed over decades and sharing that information with other families across the country.

We’re looking at separation and divorce, particularly in the light of the fact that Canada has a brand new divorce act coming into effect on July 1, and the courts are closed. So we’re trying to figure out what all those impacts are going to have on families. Certainly on early learning and child care and education, we’ve recognized nationally and internationally, how critically important early learning and child care programs are and how core they are to our social infrastructure.

We’re looking at education and the impact of homeschooling, and what that’s going to mean for families across the country and around the globe. How workplaces are changing and how they’re interfacing with the new remote working and what’s going to stick and what’s going to return to what once was pre-pandemic, and what post pandemic workplaces are going to look like. For example, you’ve heard that Twitter is now going remote, permanently. So we’re tracking all of that.

We’re looking at how the health care system is being impacted, with particular interest to how the trauma that health care workers are currently living through is going to manifest itself in future and how we’re going to support them. We’re also looking at seasonal workers and agricultural workers, those who are coming here as temporary foreign workers and what pandemic means to them and their families, and how life on the farm and life in rural and remote Canada is faring through pandemic.

We’re also looking at what life is like in inner cities and high rises and where you might not be able to connect with your neighbors in quite the same ways you can in suburban or urban communities, or you may be crammed in with multiple generations in a tight spot. We want to understand the risk that people are feeling or living with in terms of violence or abuse or neglect – tough thing to collect data on but we are doing our best with multiple sources to get a better handle on that situation.

We are looking to understand how pandemic is impacting Indigenous peoples across the country and what kinds of supports and resources are working most effectively for them. We are looking at seniors and those who are living alone, an area that we’ve heard is particularly stressful, despite the fact that most of the media has been around seniors in long-term care facilities. But seniors who are living with family members is also an area we need to understand, and of course those in long-term care facilities, and how technology is using, helping or hindering. In particular for those who don’t have access to technology or whose Internet access is not adequate, we’re interested in how we’re able to reach out to them or how they’re able to access the services and supports that are available to them in the community.

We’re also looking at persons with disabilities and in some ways, we’re learning from them because they are often excluded from community and have limited access. And so we’re learning from them as well as how they’re faring during pandemic. Young carers and people who are providing care for seniors is of particular interest, for those who are at a distance and those who are living close by. And in particular, we want to make sure that the services and supports are not creating a sort of traditional safety net which is full of holes and a lot of people falling through the cracks.

But that were, in fact, able to inform how services and supports are being redesigned, retooled, reshaped or created in their entirety and switched from a model of safety net to one of a trampoline. We know that families are the most adaptable institution in our society. I just want to leave you with this thought as we begin our program this morning, that it’s not the strongest species that shall survive, but that which has the greatest capacity to adapt. And for the next little while, we’re going to spend time together figuring out just how much families are adapting and what that’s going to mean for them in the short term and the long term. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today and enjoy the conference. Thank you so much. Back to you, Tasha.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Thanks very much, Nora. We are all adapting, some of us better than others. I hope you’re adapting well, wherever you are. I think some of the information we get today might help us with that too: to see how other families are coping, and maybe not feel quite so alone in the way that we are. Without further ado, let me introduce you to moderator and facilitator for the panel. That is Joanne Schnurr.

Our first segment, by the way, will be family connections (les liens familiaux). I know Nora mentioned “what are people talking or not talking about at home?” Joanne has spent her career talking and so she’s very well-versed in this one. She recently left CTV Ottawa after a successful 30 year career. She is a writer and a Communications Specialist. Elle est née et a fait ses etudes à Regina. Elle a commencé ca carrière en reportage à la radio avant de déménager à la station de Regina de CTV où elle a travaillé comme journaliste législative. From 1989 to 2020, she covered every aspect of the news for CTV Ottawa and has won multiple awards. Please welcome Joanne Schnurr.

Joanne Schnurr: Thank you very much. I look forward to hearing this first panel. I think we have a presentation coming up first, so we’re going to separate this into three chunks over the next 60 minutes or so. We’ll try to keep tight to that time. We’re going to hear first from Laetitia Martin, who is an analyst with the Vanier Institute of the Family. So Laetitia, take it away.

Laetitia Martin: Hi everybody. Je suis bien contente d’être ici aujourd’hui pour vous parler des liens familiaux.  I’m really happy to be here today and to talk about family connection with all of you. First, though, what is family connection? What do we mean? We had this question yesterday from one of our panelists. So simply said, family connection is what brings people together. So this is what we’ll be talking about a little bit. Those connections are constantly evolving. Sociologically, we’ve seen a lot of changes from what we used to call the traditional families, a term that may now become a myth rather than reality, and how these families have different experiences during the pandemic.

Today, what I’d like to do is give you a quick snapshot on what may be the reality faced by these families in terms of connection during the pandemic. Recent data survey has demonstrated that the vast majority of individuals have strong social connections, be it with their family members, their friends or their neighbours. The latter two are sometimes referred to as the chosen family. We’ve come to realize that the pandemic doesn’t only have bad sides.

There are also some positive aspects. For some families, the pandemic means they have more time to relax. Even families with young children say that they are relaxing more. That’s something that I don’t understand, but fair enough.  What are they doing to relax? Some are reading and playing games, whether that be electronic or non-electronic games, while arts, crafts and music are a must for families with young kids.

Now, while this time spent together can be revitalizing for some, the pandemic is also contributing to some anxiety. This anxiety is often expressed as worrying about the safety of loved ones. This is especially true for older relatives living in nursing and long-term care homes. Women tend to carry most of the burden of anxiety in worrying for their older relatives.

This is not the only gender difference that is observed in our survey data. Women seem to be more sensitive to health related challenges, such as anxiety, nervousness, sadness, irritability and difficulty sleeping. They also tend to be more satisfied with measures taken by the government and more likely to follow safety precautions. Men tend to feel closer to their partner than they were before the pandemic and are more ready to send their kids back to school. Maybe this is because they are doing most of the homeschooling. Yeah, right.

One last note here that I would like to talk about is what is happening at home. Staying safe at home requires some adjustment. Nora talked about it a little bit during her opening remarks, but sharing technology is an important concern among families. It is a reality that is even harder for the most vulnerable ones, who may not have a powerful Internet connection or the equipment required to meet the needs of all household members. J’espère que ça va générer un peu d’idées. Voici ce que je souhaitais exprimer sur les liens familiaux.

Joanne Schnurr: Merci, Laetitia. That was really informative and it gives us a broad base to start this discussion. I wanted to throw this first question out to one of our panelists, to Andrew Sofin, the president of the Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. Andrew, Laetitia touched on the idea that the pandemic doesn’t have just bad sides. We’ve heard a lot about how people are feeling very anxious and how there’s been an increase in abuse and substance abuse. But there are positives to this as well. I want you to discuss that a little bit. Could families come out of this on the brighter side of things?

Andrew Sofin: Certainly. It really depends on financial security. So if you’re talking about families that are financially secure and who do not have any family members that are high risk for COVID-19 or working on the front lines, then they’re able to spend a lot more time together. Instead of the kids hanging with their friends all the time, they’ll be hanging around with their parents. Younger children will be playing more at home. We are seeing an increase in teen engagement with parents. Before this, teens were usually more predisposed to hanging out with their friends than their parents. Now they are cooking and hanging out together. For a certain segment of Canadian families, I think the pandemic could have very positive repercussions. But it’s usually the negative stories or the ones that involve a crisis that tend to end up in the press. The perception is that it’s going to be all negative. I think that has a huge impact on families across the country, when they just keep reading stories about the negatives. There aren’t many stories about the positives.

Joanne Schnurr: We’re talking about some of those positives being impactful on families. One of those that Laetitia commented on was those government initiatives that have helped support families, and the fact that women are more likely to be receptive to that. It can help them be less anxious once they have some sort of financial security coming in. I wanted to ask Heidi Cramm, Associate Professor at Queen’s University, how important those financial supports have been in supporting families.

Heidi Cramm: Hi. Thank you very much for the question and for the opportunity to participate today. Financial security is definitely a dimension that we can see as a differentiator between how families can do. It does support one of the foundations of resiliency. When we look at families and their ability to adapt and be resilient, resiliency is really a transactional phenomenon. It’s not just what you of come with, it’s not an innate capacity, it really is highly dependent upon the transactions with the resources that are available to you. Certainly, the greater your financial security, the more confident you are in being able to access some of those resources.

Being able to learn from military families, as Nora had mentioned in her introduction, helps us understand some of those other aspects. When you can create a shared meaning and a shared identity as a family, who’s in it together and working through hard times, to create open communication structures and patterns and to be able to look at the process of being together can help to kind of create consistency out of some of the chaos that the pandemic and the pandemic measures have kind of wrought on the rhythms of family. The more consistent, not rigid, that we can become to create a sense of normalcy does support as the stressors become more enduring and we habituate to them. Certainly those who have more financial resources will have more options on how they are able to do those things.

Joanne Schnurr: Jane Badets, you are a woman of statistics. Jane is the former Assistant Chief Statistician with Statistics Canada. I wanted to ask you about the makeup of families in this. We heard from Laetitia about how this pandemic is impacting families in different ways depending on the makeup of their family. Can you comment on that? What is your experience and what are you seeing?

Jane Badets: There’s a lot of data out there and it’s really needed because this is new and unprecedented. In all the years that I’ve been working on collecting data around families, I’ve never seen quite a focus on family and the importance of family in terms of connections and in ensuring that public health practices are followed. But it plays out differently across different types of families. I think that is something that we need, to see the larger picture. It’s good that people are having good conversations in that time at home, but where are the stresses: the ties that bind can also be the ties that fray. I think we need to look across different types of families, and there’s many and they are very diverse.

I’m particularly concerned with families with children in school, whether you’re a single parent or there are two parents in the household. Right now, you may be doing lots of good things together. That’s really good in terms of building the family foundation. However, for the parents, there has to be a level of stress. One is that if they’re lucky enough to have a job, they’re asked to work at home.

Then they’re asked to homeschool and then they’re asked to make sure public health directives are being followed. But they don’t have access to the supports that they have normally: daycare, schools. Importantly, they don’t have that help outside the household: a connection to grandparents and another community. So I think about some of those families, especially with the presence of children. And then we think about single parents, how are they coping? When they go grocery shopping, they have to take their children. It’s really something we need to look at and probe and dig deeper into how different types of family are coping.

Joanne Schnurr: Can we talk about how we improve those family connections? Can you talk a little bit about what needs to be done to help families connect on a deeper level?

Jane Badets: Certainly, we have to think about support in terms of as we move out and as we transition out. How do you support the family who’s at home, and working at home, transition back into the economy? Daycare has to be a key aspect. How will programs provide that safe daycare support for working parents? It’s not clear to me how that’s being done. Then, there is school. I know there’s some criticism of what’s going on in Quebec. It’s a big experiment. Maybe you kind of understand why they moved in the way they did. I’m not saying that’s where we move everywhere. But I think there has to be more support and thought about how we can support those families with children having to work and having to transition back, and how to ensure that it is a healthy environment.

Joanne Schnurr: Andrew, I wanted to get you in on this too. What’s your experience? What are you hearing from families about the difficulties they’re encountering during these last couple of months?

Andrew Sofin: I think the biggest piece is the uncertainty. When all of this hit, one of the things that I heard from a couple and family therapists across the country, was how do we transition? How do families move from their usual ways of functioning to this “new normal”? For the majority of families, the parents might not see each other all day. They would see each other for breakfast, dinner and maybe an hour or two after dinner. Now they’re in the house 24/7 together with the kids. Who does the schooling? Who does the laundry? Roles are having to be renegotiated. More than in my entire career, we have to look at this systemically because the whole system’s changed. Every single piece of it has changed.

We’re seeing families having to figure out on the fly – now the teenager is responsible for all meals because mom and dad both have work meetings. The families with somebody working on the front line or somebody who is at high risk are the ones that are really struggling right now. We’re seeing that they’re reaching out to couple and family therapists for help because they’re overloaded and they’re terrified that a family member is going to become ill. It’s fraying the bonds of that family. Everything’s now on video on top of that, so we go from the traditional family therapy where they come in to my office and sit down to meeting on a video platform. It’s extremely difficult, especially for those in rural areas where video technology and the Internet is not strong. So you’ve got a real rural and urban divide in terms of technology, as well as a socioeconomic divide.

Joanne Schnurr: What impact is that having when you’re doing these online conferences? Clearly people need that one on one. But do they need it in the confines of a close safe office? Does it change the dynamics of those conversations?

Andrew Sofin: Enormously. This massive switch from the traditional meeting where you’ll sit in a therapist’s office to everything suddenly being on a video platform is unprecedented. Don’t forget, many of the clinicians are also struggling with how to do this at the same time as trying to take care of their kids and everything else that’s going on in their homes. One of the things that you miss is that non-verbal, some of the other cues that you kind of take for granted. Especially in the context of therapy, I think you can’t dive as deep for some families and some couples and people are more reluctant to dive deep when it is on a virtual platform compared to in the safety of an office.

It’ll be interesting to see how that moves forward out of the pandemic. Will people continue to use virtual platforms for therapy or will people rush right back to the office. Many people are delaying therapy because they don’t want to do it virtually.

Joanne Schnurr: Heidi, what are your thoughts on this? Can you comment on what supports are in place for families and maybe where we’re missing?

Heidi Cramm: Right now, one of the things we see is that there’s never been a greater social awareness about how families are supporting people who are responsible for the safety and security of all of our Canadian cities and towns. This includes the families of military, the families of our first responders, public safety personnel, our fire, our police and our paramedics. The risk of exposure to those families and the risk to their psychological well-being in the worries about those who are coming in more direct contact with that risk out in the community highlights and amplifies the already existing lifestyle stressors that these families are  experiencing and trying to adapt to in a very persistent, ongoing way.

One of the things that we don’t have a good understanding of is shift work and sleep. For example, you have someone who’s a firefighter who works for 24 hours and he comes home and has to sleep. And with the rest of the family stuck at home as well, how do you adapt to that? I’m actually doing that in this exact moment. I’m very aware of some of those vulnerabilities of some of the families. We need to understand those lifestyle dimensions better so we can better support the families who have experiences that will persist beyond this.

Joanne Schnurr: Clearly, we have a lot more to study and learn about this subject. We’re going to wrap up this particular panel right now. There are questions being posed off screen so hopefully our panelists will be able to address those for all of you. But I’d like to throw it back to Tasha now to introduce our next video and our next panel.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Thanks so much Joanne. And of course, I want to thank very much Jane Badets, Andrew Sofin and Heidi Cramm, as well as Laetitia Martin for that last panel. Connections are important and well-being is critical. This is going to be the subject of our next panel: just how well are Canadian families doing? From health to finances, how are they feeling during this very unprecedented and in some ways, very challenging time? Joanne is going to introduce a video and our panelists and take us through this conversation.

Joanne Schnurr: Thank you very much, Tasha. This next video is on family well-being. Jennifer Kaddatz is a Special Advisor with the Vanier Institute of the Family and she’s going to walk us through what’s happening with the well-being of families.

Jennifer Kaddatz: We’re going to do this for a general population perspective. I would have loved to have given you a ton of diversity statistics today, but because of our time constraints we are hoping that you will join us for another conference so that we can get more into the characteristics of different population groups across the country: youth and children and elders as well.

I’ll start by saying that the well-being of every individual in the family impacts the well-being of family as a whole. This is important, but it’s also important to remember that the well-being of the family can also affect individuals. This presentation focuses on health in the COVID-19 pandemic. We know that everyone’s really concerned about their own health right now. What really struck me in the data is how concerned Canadians are for other people’s health. We are concerned about the health of our family. 80% of us are concerned about the health of vulnerable people in Canada and about our health care system. Women tend to be more afraid of contracting COVID-19 or that family members will contract COVID-19 than their male counterparts. This has been consistent throughout the eight weeks of the pandemic, but there are other ones that don’t.

We need to look at long-term trends.  Fear, anxiety, nervousness, sadness, irritability, sleep-related problems and mood swings are quite common in COVID-19, not only for adults, but also for children. This slide is from UNICEF Canada, who found that seven in 10 young people right now are having mental health impacts from COVID-19. Next week, we’re looking forward to release on Canadian youth, from the Association for Canadian Studies, Experiences Canada and the Vanier Institute of the Family, so stay tuned for that.

We have to remember too when we’re thinking of well-being that a lot of people went into the pandemic with pre-existing health conditions. One of the things that struck me is that 25% of Canadians had bad sleep habits, even before the pandemic and this is now going up. Front line workers and health care providers could be having really difficult times both because of shift work requirements for sleep, but also because of the dreams that they’re having. This Harvard study shows that the dreams of health care workers closely resemble those of combat Veterans. Sleep is a family affair. If someone in the household is not sleeping or someone’s trying to sleep during the day shift and the children are making a lot of noise, it has a profound effect on everyone. Lack of sleep can result in serious health conditions: mental health, physical health and self-regulation.

That leads me to my next topic: the fear of violence in the home during the COVID-19 pandemic.  We’re seeing a lot of headlines saying there have been deaths resulting from family violence and there have been spikes in domestic violence calls. Interestingly, some care providers are finding that women are not able to get to their phones to make the phone calls needed. So in some cases, what’s been reported is that women have been trying to sneak out of the house, saying they’re going to get groceries or do something else so they can use their phones to call for help.  Similar situations exist for seniors. With the COVID-19 pandemic, there may be a lot of social isolation going on and the risk factor for elder abuse and neglect for elders as well as for children and women. We know that family violence often goes unreported. It’s a difficult topic that is also difficult to measure. We can look at police report statistics, but we also rely on people telling us what’s happening in their homes, which is not always reported to police.

Another challenge for Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic is food insecurity. A lot of Canadians were experiencing food security challenges before the pandemic. That has increased during this special environment we’re in right now. Some local food banks, including those in Toronto have seen increases of 50% and that is expected to rise. But what are families doing that’s good for their health during the COVID-19 pandemic? Well, a lot are working from home and this is freeing up their time to do things like communicating with family and friends, maybe changing some food choices and doing some meditation. People are preparing meals at home. Families have been telling us that they have been spending more relaxed time at their family meals and not having to rush off to kids’ activities. That could be very good for family well-being overall.

Joanne Schnurr: I will throw some questions to our next panelists with respect to what we saw in the slideshow. What struck me was that women seem to be more worried about contracting COVID-19 or they’re worried about someone they love getting it. I’m wondering if Joel Denis, who is the Executive Director of the Public Health Agency of Canada, can talk about that. Is there a reason for them to be more concerned? Are they more prone to contracting this virus or where does that concern come from?

Joel Denis: Hi, everybody. Thank you very much for the question. I think there’s a lot to unpack in the video that we’ve seen. One thing that hit me in terms of what was provided was that with some of these aspects of public health implications, we could have been watching this video pre-COVID-19. Some of the health aspects that were identified there aren’t terribly new. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified some of the vulnerabilities that already existed for some of the health aspects but also some of the populations.

There’s a couple of things that strike me as twists that are worth pausing on. One is the tension between families from a mental health perspective. I wonder if, from women’s point of view, there is tension between all the different roles that have to be played now: as a caregiver, as an educator, as a social worker, having to deal with extended family as well as everything around the professional aspect as well. Then thinking also about the concern of kids going back to school which may be a positive in that it may alleviate some tensions, but then there is the fear that might bring from an infectious perspective.

Joanne Schnurr: Jennifer also talked about youth being affected. I heard a story today with respect to the Ottawa police. It said that they’ve had to deal with an increase of about 25% in recent weeks, dealing with family disputes, and I’m wondering if Lisa Wolff can comment on that. Lisa is the Director of Policy and Education with UNICEF Canada. Lisa, you did some work recently with respect to youth and children and how COVID-19 is affecting that dynamic, is that right?

Lisa Wolff: Children are often thought to be one of the least affected populations because they tend not to get infected with COVID-19. They don’t have as severe symptoms. But really every aspect of their lives is affected or disrupted, including the systems, services and people they rely on. I think it’s a good thing that a focus on how safe children are in the home has surfaced in the media. It’s certainly been one of the primary areas of focus of how children are being affected. We know from other crises, particularly economic crises, and we have now a complex health economic social crisis, that domestic violence tends to go up and children are among the greatest victims of that.

I think we need to consider the other kinds of narratives that are going on in the media around children, that they’re often seen as vectors of infection or problems to manage as parents balance responsibilities or cute actors on social media or subjects of debate about schools opening. It’s really important to talk directly with young people about how they’re experiencing this pandemic. There hasn’t been a whole lot of that. UNICEF and our partners have certainly been talking directly with young people across the country, including through our U-Report program. We’re learning some things that provide a fuller picture of young people’s experience. When it comes to family violence, what we heard was that 1 in 4 young people are very or extremely concerned about the level of stress that they perceive at home. Sixteen percent (16%) say that they’re at least somewhat concerned about the level of violence in the family. But on the other hand, a third of young people say that the opportunities to spend more time with family has been a very positive thing and one of the other positive impacts that they’re experiencing.

Joanne Schnurr: How would you approach these conversations with young people and with kids in your family? I guess it would depend on their age, but do you have some tips on how to manage those conversations?

Lisa Wolff: There’s a lot of things we can do in terms of preventing family violence. Some of them we’re seeing roll out, but I think the pandemic provides a lot of insight about how to strengthen the systems that we’re seeing were not strong enough to begin with and what we can do to improve resilience in the future. I think prevention is key. So having a broader campaign about coping mechanisms for both parents and young people and there is information available to parents even on our UNICEF website, on the Public Health Agency’s website, for how to have conversations when parents and children are feeling stressed.

I think having child protection workers declared essential is important. It helps them continue to have direct relationships with families where there is heightened risk. It’s really a multi-prong, multi-effort consideration. We know that young people are being confined. There’s not as many eyes on them, but the teachers who are online can check in with their students regularly and make reports to child welfare as they used to do if they have to.

Joanne Schnurr: I do want to include some of the questions from our audience and a couple of people have focused on the risks for single families: the fact that they have less financial support, perhaps more stressors on them. Don Giesbrecht is the CEO of the Canadian Child Care Federation. Don, I’d like you to address single families specifically. What are you seeing? What kinds of stressors are they dealing with?

Don Giesbrecht: It’s had a real impact on families as all the panelists have talked about in the foundational pieces. I think Joel just mentioned all that too. What we’re what we’re hearing from our partners and child care programs across Canada in terms of the impact on families and single families was highlighted early on in the pandemic when there was a news reporter that went to a playground and was interviewing families from a safe distance. They were sort of the deer in the headlights. This is not their normal. Maybe some would think instinctively that you’re going to interact with your child now and you’re going to go to the park and you’re going to do this and that. But we really rely on our child care services every day. That’s our normal and it’s the normal for our child. It’s the normal for us to interact with other families and, most certainly, it’s the norm for our child to interact with other children.  You’ve seen the immediate impact of that stress on families and how they’re going to manage working from home, managing child care, managing not having school, if you have school aged children and that sort of thing.

I’ve talked with a number of families and neighbours who have young children. They certainly talk about the opportunities to have those really great interactions with their children and the partners in their homes. But then there’s the other side of it. But what’s next? Will we have child care? Will we have those supports when we go forward? This is talking also about those foundational supports for families, for child care, and the real worry of whether it will reopen. Because like every other aspect in society, it is has been impacted from an operational side. What are the procedures in terms of getting children back and families back in safely? What about the potential trauma that has happened in this moment? If you have intensive screening before child gets into a program on a day-to-day basis, what impact does that have on that child and that family? There’s lots here that will have to be figured out and unpacked as we go forward.

Joanne Schnurr: Maybe you can’t answer this question, but I was going to ask you how do you shift towards what we don’t know is going to happen in the child care community?

Don Giesbrecht: There’s been varied responses from province to province to province and territory across Canada. From the outset, you had certain provinces that shut child care down completely, along with schools and virtually every other aspect of society, to other provinces that were open for essential service workers to others that had a mix of those kinds of responses. Now, you’re pivoting to how to reopen these programs? How do we reopen them safely? How many children? What are the interactions like? I think that’s one of the key questions here: what are the interactions? Most certainly early childhood educators and child care programs are about the quality of interaction between the child and the early childhood educator and the family. If you have social distancing in place, how does that happen? Because it’s really not realistic for children to not socially interact with each other or to not socially interact with their caregivers.

So we have these varied responses in each jurisdiction in terms of what the practices and protocols are. Quebec is probably the most aggressive at this moment in terms of reopening. They’ve had some setbacks in terms of infections and whatnot. We’re watching that closely and making sure what they’re doing is following guidelines and peeling back that layer of the onion to understand where the gaps are in this and what we can improve upon.

Joanne Schnurr: Let’s talk about the other end of the spectrum. We’ve certainly seen how COVID-19 has impacted long-term care homes. I’m going to throw this to whoever wants to answer this question in this panel. Do you see going forward that families are going to want to keep their elderly parents at home? Do you see a switch from long-term care homes to elderly parents living with their families?

Lisa Wolff: At UNICEF, we focus on everything from a child and youth lens. What I would say is there are already many families that are multigenerational where children are in contact with older relatives. The household confinement strategies that are underway right now hopefully keep that family unit healthy and together. Children in alternative care and foster care are having a particularly tough time as their caregivers in foster care can be older. There’s a lot of concerns about safety and disruption that they’re facing, as well as trying to maintain relationships with other loved ones. However this goes, I think families are remarkably resilient and find ways to cope. We have to keep looking at the evidence and recognizing that there’s not much evidence to support the claim that children are super spreaders in the family, so multigenerational families can continue to work and function.

Joanne Schnurr: We can’t talk about family well-being without talking about frontline workers. Is there some plan in place to deal with the stress that they’re going to see once we come out of this – that PTSD? What plans are in place to help those frontline workers recover from what they’ve been through?

Joel Denis: There’s a lot of discussion on that right now. Each jurisdiction will likely have a slightly different approach for these frontline and essential workers. From the federal government perspective, they’re having those discussions with the provinces and territories. What’s also important to remember is that there has been light shed on “other” essential workers that we haven’t typically thought of that we might need to be thinking about post-COVID as we transition. For example, it’s not only the doctors, but it’s also the nurses’ aides. Some of the other types of skill sets that we typically don’t think about, but that we know that we’ve had difficulty filling across the country. It also goes all the way down to the types of services we depend on: the cashiers at the grocery stores that we need to have working so that some of the other aspects of society can function. I think there’s a broader rethink on what is that we actually value and what does that mean in terms of our supports and services going forward.

Joanne Schnurr: We’ve examined this and I think we know what the issues are. Obviously, there’s still a lot of study to be done. But what do we do with this now? How do we go forward once we’re through all this and implement the measures that need to be in place?

Joel Denis: Your crystal ball is as good as anybody else’s. I think COVID makes us reflect on what kind of shifts we need to make for society to be more resilient overall: from an individual perspective, from a family perspective and from a community and society perspective. It’s highlighted quite a few things about the interaction between the socio, the economic and the health. How long will we hold on to that memory as we move forward for new shifts toward new support systems that need to put in place? Or will our memories be short and we will go back to the pre-COVID mentality? Those are some of the questions that forums like this help expose. What are some of the systematic shifts that we need to be thinking about from a systems point of view, so that overall we can be more resilient moving forward. I think it’s going to require quite a shift.

Joanne Schnurr: I think there’s a need for more forums like this. There’s so much more we need to discuss. I’m going to leave these three panelists now. Thank you all for your amazing contributions. I’ll send it back to Tasha to introduce our next segment and what the subject is.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Thanks very much, Joanne. Thank you very much Don Giesbrecht, Lisa Wolff, Joel Denis and Jennifer Kaddatz. That was a good question to segue to talking about the future. This is the last segment that we’re going to be looking at: families in the future. Les familles dans l’avenir, parce que dans l’avenir, on ne sait pas ce qui nous attend, mais on sait qu‘il va y avoir des changements. Et les changements qu’on voit aujourd’hui, est-ce qu’ils vont durer, est-ce qu’ils vont muter en quelque chose d’autre? On ne sait pas. Let’s open the crystal ball to take a look and see what the pandemic could leave us with.

Joanne Schnurr: With that tough crystal ball act, this is going to be Ana Fostik’s job. She’s a family demographer with the Vanier Institute of the Family. She’s going to be talking about what families will see in the future and how families are going to change in the coming weeks, months and years.

Ana Fostik: When it comes to how the pandemic and its associated crisis will impact families in the years to come, we may think about several dimensions of family life that might be affected. But in the next few minutes, I will focus on possible changes in the processes of family formation, childbearing behaviors, the transition to adulthood and the stability of couples.  The context of the pandemic has brought increased levels of stress to families, not only because of the sanitary crisis, but also because of an unprecedented economic crisis with levels of unemployment much greater than those observed in previous economic recessions.

In this context of increased uncertainty in the labor market, our first important question is what effects will be seen both on fertility intentions and in reproductive behavior? We know from research that people are less likely to have children in periods of social and economic uncertainty. Despite hearing talk of coronials or the Zoom Generation, it is unlikely that we will see a post-quarantine baby boom. Past lockdowns during natural disasters have little effect on fertility. Together with the lockdown, the coronavirus pandemic brought about a socioeconomic crisis and difficulties of access to health care. All are factors that come into play when planning pregnancies.

By the time the coronavirus pandemic arrived, fertility rates were already on the decline in most occidental societies. For instance, the past decade in the United States marked the slowest 10 year period for population growth since statistics on mortality and fertility first started being compiled in the late 18th century. An expert tells us that in a context of increased mortality and decrease in fertility if this epidemic is as significant in terms of mortality as can be expected, deaths could exceed births in the United States, which is something that has never happened before.

When asked what we can expect of fertility in the coming years, a demographer tells us that being a parent is an irreversible decision. People are less inclined to make these kind of long-term commitments when they are uncertain about the future. In a context of great uncertainty at the societal level, individuals will probably put reproductive projects on hold, sometimes indefinitely.

Our most recent experience in widespread uncertainty and deterioration of economic conditions comes from the Great Recession that started around 2008. Recent studies concerning the effect of this recession on fertility rates have shown that fertility declines in Europe were strongly related to increases in unemployment and that fertility rates declined most in the regions in which labour market conditions also deteriorated the most. In this graph, we can observe the total fertility rate, that is the average number of children per woman, from 2000 to 2014. We see that up until 2008, there was a tendency for fertility rates to somewhat increase or to remain stable. After the recession in 2008, fertility rates plateaued or declined. In some cases, this decline was rather sharp. For instance, in southern Europe, which we know was one of the hardest hit regions for the economic and financial crisis. For instance, in the Nordic countries of Western Europe, the declines were less dramatic.

Another element of family life that might experience transformations in a context of high unemployment and uncertainty and instability is the transition to adulthood. When will young adults leave the parental home, form a co-residential union and start childbearing? We know all of these processes are already being delayed until later ages, and particularly so in the case of the first birth. Again, in the context of the 2008 Great Recession, demographers observed that young adults in Europe postponed living independently because of the high levels of job insecurity and the difficulties of access to housing. That is, young adults tended to live even longer with their parents, which in turn, can lead to delaying other transitions such as forming a couple and having a first child. Some European demographers expect that the economic crisis after the pandemic will probably exacerbate these trends that we were already observing, unless some appropriate policies are developed that might help counteract some of the adverse effects of the crisis.

On top of the concerns regarding the formation of new couples, another question that arises is what effect the pandemic crisis might have on the quality of already existing couple relationships in the level of conflict among partners or spouses and whether it may lead to increased couple instability. One way in which the crisis might impact the level of conflict within couples is that the gendered aspects of work-family balance might become more salient in a situation in which many individuals are working from home, especially if they are undertaking child care duties at the same time. If there is an increase in conflict among couples, will we see an increase in separation and divorces? Or on the contrary, will individuals be constrained to stay in unhappy relationships if economic hardship makes it difficult to establish a separate household. We could potentially observe both tendencies at the same time, as some individuals will be able to go through with a separation or divorce if their job security is not threatened, while others might have to endure the relationship until they can secure a more stable financial situation.

Some of these questions are already being asked by researchers as we observe a proliferation of COVID-related projects all over the world. For instance, there are projects looking at relationship quality among cohabiting couples during and after the COVID dynamic in the United States or COVID Together, another project on how couples are coping and supporting each other during the pandemic in Canada and some other international research studies on love in the times of COVID. Some pertinent research projects were already underway in 2018, such as this project in Italy that is studying fertility under fundamental uncertainty. There is also a new project by the Max Planck Institute for Demography that seeks to evaluate the specific effects of the COVID-19 crisis on fertility. There are a myriad of projects looking at different aspects of family dynamics during and after the pandemic and they will certainly shed light on many other aspects of families in the future. Thank you.

Joanne Schnurr: Thank you very much. There’s a lot of information to absorb there. What jumped out at me immediately was the comment that deaths could exceed births. That’s in the United States, I suspect the same thing may happen here. That’s never happened before in the US history. I want to ask Senator Donna Dasko about what impact something like that could have on government policies and government revenues down the road?

Sen. Donna Dasko: We are certainly looking at that. First of all, I want to thank Ana for her presentation and I want to thank Nora Spinks for inviting me to be here today. I’m really delighted to be here to listen to all this great material. Where do we start with public policy for heaven’s sakes? Deaths exceeding births would be just one of the challenges that we might be having. What is absolutely central to public policy right now in Canada is the fact that over the past two months, this government has taken extraordinary unprecedented actions. There has been unprecedented policy development and supports rolled out to Canadians.

If we’re going to focus on public policy, that has to be the central fact that we are facing as a country today. So we have these massive amounts of supports: $150 billion of direct supports to individuals and businesses. For me, the public policy challenge in the near and medium term is how do we transition to other supports, if those are needed, and how do we transition away from the supports that we’ve given? They’re supposed to be temporary. They’re supposed to be there for this particular purpose. So that is a huge preoccupation. Secondly, because of the expenditures, the fiscal situation of the government is going to be really constrained going down the road. I think that’s going to cause a lot of problems for the spending that the government has and the programs they have.

I’m also hoping that some good comes out of the public policy environment. I would like to see a guaranteed basic income as one of the policy initiatives that might come out of this environment. I’m hoping that somehow this will happen. There may be some good public policy initiatives coming out of this, but going forward we’re faced with this massive elephant in the room. How do we get through it? How do we move through it? What does it mean for the situation of the government? That’s a long answer to the question. This is what we’re looking at right now and how do we deal with it? It’s huge.

Joanne Schnurr: Clearly the government can’t impact what’s happening in the bedrooms of Canadians and one of the comments that Anna made was on the impact that COVID-19 is having on fertility. I wanted to bring Jack Jedwab here. He’s president of the Association of Canadian Studies. What does this mean going forward five years or 20 years from now, in terms of schools, universities, the talent pool, for instance?

Jack Jedwab: First of all, let me say thanks, Joanne and thank you to Nora for the invitation. I think it’s very difficult to project what this may mean for the future of education in general. We know currently that it’s seriously upsetting our efforts to provide schooling across the entire spectrum. In terms of families, it’s creating new responsibilities on parents for things like homeschooling or institutions that have to provide materials through technologies to kids that don’t follow education in this particular non-traditional way.

Clearly there are going to be some serious impacts in terms of what’s happening now with respect to the work-family balance and relationships at home where a lot of people will not want to go back to work. They get used to working from home and we may see gender roles shift and relations with families shift. With regard to your question with respect to education, in the medium term, there are going to be serious ramifications for the way in which we educate our children and adults across the spectrum.

Joanne Schnurr: Let’s talk about another segment of our population. Carl Cadogan is with the Reception House in the Waterloo Region. Carl, I’m wondering if you can talk about Ana’s statistics with respect to immigrant families in the future? How will immigration or settlement change?

Carl Cadogan: Thank you very much for the question. Again, as everyone has said thank you Nora for the invitation. If you think about immigration, Canada has depended a great deal on immigration over the last number of years, not only for foreign workers and international students, but also for people who have chosen Canada as their home, whether they’re government assisted refugees or privately sponsored refugees. We work in Kitchener-Waterloo with groups of people who are having a very challenging time during the pandemic. Those are people who are new to the country. They haven’t yet familiarized themselves with the resources that are available for most Canadians. So people tend to isolate themselves more. They’ve tended to depend a lot more on services in the community, and a lot of those services aren’t available right now. It’s sort of had a double impact on newcomers to the country.

As Canada thinks about reopening its borders – well for one, we’re asking, when will the borders being reopened? When will immigration start again? If you think about the comment about more people dying than births, we will need more immigration going forward. How do we do that in this pandemic? I don’t necessarily have an answer for that but that’s a question that we’ve been asking. I think that the government has to be strategic as they think about how best to make this happen and how best to support those people who are new to the country. I think that some of the initiatives that have happened around employment and around support for families, some of newcomers can take advantage of those initiatives. But some of them are not able to do that. They don’t have the capacity, the ability or maybe the language to access that information. That is an ongoing issue that newcomers face, no matter how they’ve come to this country.

Joanne Schnurr: Ana also talked about couple formation and statistics on whether more people were going to stay together in unhappy relationships or whether they were going to break up. What about the formation of couples themselves? That’s likely to change during the pandemic, and post-pandemic. Will people partner up and if not, then what?

Jack Jedwab: Let me give you a personal example. My daughter is supposed to get married on July 5, and she was hoping to have a very large wedding. Right now we’re looking at November and even November may not work. So we’re putting that off. I’m hoping it just will be a wedding, not a large wedding. It’s an example of the challenges that couples and future newlyweds are currently encountering in terms of building a relationship in this particular environment. I think increasingly that’s going to be a challenge. I’d like to hope it’s a medium term challenge and that we’re all working to find a way to get back to the pre-COVID period, even though there’s no question there will be effects of this experience, even as we work our way back.  Much of this will depend on our memory and the extent to which our memories of this are short or not, and how resilient we are.

Over the past number of years, our memories have gotten increasingly short and there are a lot of people, as we are seeing in the polling right now, who are very eager to return to a lot of the things they missed before. The extent and capacity that we have to prevent them from doing that over the medium term, despite all the restrictions we’re putting in place, is going to be a very big challenge. Back to my daughter, she won’t have a big wedding but she’s very excited to get married and so is her partner. They’re going to find a way to do it, as are many other people. Even couples in existing situations where we know it can be more challenging because they’re spending more time with each other than they had before and their routines and gender roles are shifting – we’re going to have to see how that plays out. There’s a lot of data on that. We’re going to need the resources in place to help people as they go through this particular situation. But again, I still think people want to get back to where they were before. They miss all the little things that they took for granted before. We’re going to have to see how that situation evolves and the extent to which we can modify people’s behaviours over a particular period of time and how long that will be.

Sen. Donna Dasko: I agree with Jack. I think if I were to hypothesize on the future of the family as a result of this pandemic, I would say that most people would want to return to a lot of the arrangements they had before it started. We have to remember that the pandemic has forced people into behaviors that they didn’t want: social distancing, not seeing friends and not seeing family. Nobody here has even mentioned the public space and the fact that people want to be in the public space. They want to go to ball games and they want to go shopping in the malls. They’ve been forced to stay away from these kinds of interactions and relationships and activities. As a hypothesis, a lot of people will want to return to the kinds of things that they were used to before this happened. If we can return, and as Ana said, there will be economic constraints. If people can’t get their jobs back, then there’s going to be economic hardship and that is going to restrain getting back to many of the behaviours and lifestyles that people had.

Joanne Schnurr: I’m going to wrap up this panel. Thank you all for contributing to this. That was a lot of fun. I’ll throw it back to Tasha for some final comments.

Tasha Kheiriddin: Before we close, I want to thank our last panel. Senator Donna Dasko, Carl Cadogan, Jack Jedwab, Ana Fostik and, of course, Joanne Schnurr.  Before I turn things over to Nora Spinks for the close, I just wanted to highlight that for everyone watching that if you’ve enjoyed this conference today, there will be many more in the future. You can get more information on the COVID-19 Social Impacts Network page on the Association for Canadian Studies website. Floor is yours, Nora.

Nora Spinks: Thank you so much and thank you for all your efforts in helping us understand this. Thank you all for your patience on the technology. It’s mimicking what families are going through. We’re adapting on the fly as we go. I think what we’ve heard today is that we’re talking about this experience that we’re all living and trying to study and understand is that it’s a magnification. It’s magnifies, amplifies and intensifies both the strengths and the weaknesses in every system, whether that system be a family, a community or a sector.

We’re all living in this and we have to remember that some kids are thriving at homeschooling and just love it, while others are really struggling. There is not going to be any one size fits all. We’re also seeing that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s a ton of research underway and more research that will be happening in the future. What we do today will have a huge impact on the future. Whether that’s having no babies at all in 2021 meaning kindergartens in 2026 are going to look very different than they do today and universities 15 years later.

As we’re building and returning and reopening the market economy, we need to think about the strength and the need to invest in and fully develop our care economy. We used to talk about care as being a sector of the market economy. I think what the pandemic has done is shown that that’s not viable in the long term. We need to really think about what this care economy is going to look like. It means that understanding is going to be the key and that data and conversations are going to be absolutely critical going forward. We have to do that with open minds, open hearts and open conversations. We will continue to survey week over week. We will continue to analyze over time and focus on well-being of individuals, families, communities and neighbours. We’ll look at the opportunities as well as the challenges going forward. We will continue to look for other sources of data whether that be in crime data or next week we’ll be launching a survey with the marriage and counseling therapists across the country to see what they’re experiencing in their therapy sessions.

I just want to close by saying thank you to everybody. Thank you to the presenters, Laetitia, Jen and Ana, to all the panelists, to Joanne for moderating the panels. Thank you to Tasha for moderating and for the planning team, the tech support and you, the participants. We are all learning on the fly here and we’re making personal, organizational and economic decisions that we will be living with for a very long time. With that in mind, we talked a lot about how families and individuals are participating in art and music. For those of you who know Vanier Institute events, we always have some form of art, music or performance. We’re going to close this conference today with a video that was prepared by L’Arche Canada, one of our partner organizations: “Tiny Lights.” It is their expression to us about the spirit of kindness, hope and generosity, and we will leave you on that note.

Watch the Tiny Lights video


*This transcript does not include the opening remarks from Her Excellency the Right Honourable Julie Payette, Governor General of Canada, and The Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development.

The Social Impacts of COVID-19 Online Conference Series is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.