By Vanier CEO Nora Spinks

If it is true that “many people walk in and out of your life, but only true friends leave footprints on your heart,” then many participants at the Families in Canada Conference 2015 left the historic event with lots of new tracks on their hearts as a result of this unique experience. We explored the stories behind the statistics, modelled diversity and inclusion, challenged our assumptions, examined our biases and imagined the future of families in Canada.

Over the past few years, leading up to the 2015 conference, the Vanier Institute embarked on the National Families in Canada Listening Tour, where thousands of Canadians were asked to reflect on their experiences, hopes, dreams and expectations. They were tasked with completing the phrase “Family is…” and asked to imagine and anticipate the future by completing the phrase “Wouldn’t it be great if…”

Their Excellencies The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, and Mrs. Sharon JohnstonIn spring of 2012, the first Families in Canada Round Table was held at Rideau Hall, co-hosted by the Vanier Institute and His Excellency The Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada. Vanier Institute Board Chair David Northcott opened the 2015 conference by sharing that one of the Canadian leaders at this event said, “Wouldn’t it be great if there was another gathering like the original Canadian Conference on the Family, where we could expand the conversation involving more people from across the country?”

The Families in Canada Conference 2015 did just that! And did it in a big way.

Participants attended this conference to learn. People came from across the country, representing all 10 provinces and two of Canada’s territories, all sectors and many industries. Our conversations were enriched with diverse perspectives from researchers, scholars, academics, writers and journalists, service providers, government officials and employers, as well as advocates and people with lived experiences.

People attended to gather information, to hear and share insights and to be inspired.

The past is about learning, the present is about growth and the future is about possibilities. Over two days, participants reflected on the past, examined the present and began imagining the future.
This special conference on families in Canada, hosted by a research and education organization, was unique in many ways. In planning the experience, we wanted it to be informative, memorable, impactful, insightful and inspirational. We wanted it to be positive, hopeful and inclusive. We achieved those objectives and more.
Conference speaker Andrew Solomon

The experience was greater than we could have thought possible, and it was enhanced by recent and current events, technology, the gifts and talents speakers and panellists shared with participants, and the openness and engagement of all those present.

Who would have thought that an opening musical performance by gifted Inuk artist Susan Aglukark singing “O Siem” (we are family) would be so powerful and set the tone for the entire conference?

Who would have thought that we would have a keynote speaker on Day 1 who talked about disability, difference and diversity and described his own complex family structure that spans three states and includes himself, his husband, four other adults and four children – and that he was able to talk about it publicly and share it in a room where he was respected and his experiences were valued?

Who would have thought that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would have released their report just before the conference began, and that it was exactly seven years ago to the day of our Respect, Reconciliation and Resilience conversation that panellist and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) Phil Fontaine spoke to the Senate, kicking off the process?

Conference speakers Archbishop V. James Weisgerber, Kelly J. Lendsay and Phil FontaineWho would have thought – even a few years ago – that people would come to a meeting like this and instead of being asked to turn off their phones, actually be asked to turn them on to tweet about our conversations?

Who would have thought that thousands of tweets would be posted with the conference hashtag? Just to put that in perspective: at the Institute, we usually have five to 10 a day. So, a thousand a day is remarkable.

Who would have thought that by doing so we would have reached not only the people in the room, but thousands of other people out there through Twitter, and thousands more through the radio interviews that occurred during the conference with Andrew Solomon, barbara findlay and myself; locally, nationally and internationally, our conversations continued well beyond the meeting room.

Conference speakers barbara findlay and Ann DouglasWho would have thought that those who study, serve and support families would so graciously step outside of their comfort zone? Who would have thought that a research conference would include people singing, talking about dancing, speaking about their experiences, hugging, sharing their feelings openly and telling their stories about being part of a family, studying families and family life or supporting families in their homes and communities?

Who would have thought that academics would step out of their comfort zone and actually stand in front of a conference about research on families without a single PowerPoint!

Who would have thought that we would include knowledge translation with graphics, art and music – that we would be talking about families and transferring knowledge using rap, video, poetry, posters and even a magic trick?

Conference speaker Carl CadoganWho would have thought that a research conference would include musicians on its panels and artists in the audience? Who would have thought that we would have a gathering here in Canada with Indigenous peoples (First Nations, Inuit and Métis), with Catholic Church leaders, with a Rabbi, with a leader in the Muslim community, with people who are Hindi and others from many cultures?

We set out to gather new information, to reflect and to be inspired to take that new knowledge and those fresh insights and turn them into solid impact in the work that we do. We set out to understand poverty, homelessness, the early years and the golden years. We set out to understand the power of relationships and the importance of communications.

We set out to understand the two sides of the technology coin – the pain and the exclusion that it sometimes creates, but also the power and the possibility of the inclusion that it can provide. We achieved these objectives and more!

Conference speakers Corey and Jessie Van EssenAs the Families in Canada Conference 2015 drew to a close, the participants reflected on the experience and made a commitment to create a Canada where families engage and thrive in a caring and compassionate society, with a robust and prosperous economy, in an inclusive and vibrant culture, in a safe and sustainable environment. Achieving this will require creativity, innovation, passion, intelligence, courage, commitment and collaboration.

The bright minds at the conference, the catalytic conversations held and the diverse approaches to enhancing our understanding of Canada’s families have shown us that while there is much work to be done, the future is full of possibility and potential.

Wouldn’t it be great if 50 years from now, at the Families in Canada Conference 2065, the next generation of those who study, serve and support Canada’s families gather to celebrate the realization of this vision?

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