The Vanier Institute of the Family: A Short History

“The Vanier Institute of the Family can be compared to a Royal Commission established to investigate and learn all there is to know about the families of Canada in a world of change. But since the need for knowledge and study will continue as long as we inhabit the globe, this Royal Commission will never be discharged.”
Governor General Georges Vanier, speech at Sydney, N.S., May 25, 1966 (excerpt from Soldier, Diplomat and Governor General by Robert Speaight)

In the Beginning (1965–1970)

The Vanier Institute of the Family began its work in 1965 immediately following the Canadian Conference on the Family held at Government House by Their Excellencies General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier and the Honourable Pauline Vanier. This founding conference brought together distinguished women and men from all walks of life, each of whom knew that the contribution of families is vitally important and ultimately shapes the world in which we live.

General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier’s vision to create an enduring organization dedicated to the cause of our society through the family was supported by the leadership of Canada’s renowned neuroscientist Dr. Wilder Penfield. His commitment to the role of the Vanier Institute of the Family was rooted in his belief that families shape us as individuals and ultimately serve as the essential cornerstone of society.

With a combination of Vanier’s vision, Penfield’s determination and the support of Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, a legacy was created for families across Canada. The tangible expression of that legacy took the form of an Endowment Fund representing the generosity of governments, foundations, businesses, faith groups and individuals. Well-invested, these funds have grown over the years and continue to support the core program of the Vanier Institute.

This vision and determination were complemented by the scholarship of one of the Vanier Institute’s principal founders, Dr. Frederick Elkin. In 1964, Elkin surveyed the state of knowledge about Canada’s families to create the now-classic text titled The Family in Canada, an account of present knowledge and gaps in knowledge about families in Canada and a key resource at the Canadian Conference on the Family.

During its first years of operation, the Vanier Institute sought to fill some of the knowledge gaps that Elkin had identified in this research, and in the process opened new avenues of investigation, which included the first Canadian studies of family violence, single-parent families, family diversity, divorce and much more. The lessons derived from these studies prepared the Vanier Institute to move beyond scholarship as it made its early contributions to policy discussions and legislative frameworks on diverse topics such as family law reform, divorce legislation and immigration policy.

Coming of Age (1971–2010)

The exploratory work and initial studies carried out in the early years led to the definition of two primary contentions articulated in 1972 by then President of the Vanier Institute, Beryl Plumptre, namely:

  • The Vanier Institute must be thoroughly in touch with family life of all kinds, not the ideal of the family, but the reality of the family as people live it.
  • The Vanier Institute must be concerned with the impact of the family and its surrounding social structures on each other.

Since that time, the Vanier Institute has, on this foundation, established itself as an independent voice for families in Canada. Governed by its Board of Directors, which draws upon the commitments and talents of Canadians from all walks of life and from all parts of the nation, the Vanier Institute has worked bilingually with, and on behalf of, those who study, serve and support families (including, but not limited to, researchers, elected officials, policy-makers and analysts, teachers, students, family service agencies, businesses and non-governmental organizations).

In its efforts to focus attention on the importance and significance of family life, the Vanier Institute has, over the years, monitored the evolving patterns of family formation and functioning. In doing so, it has adopted the following definition of family to guide both its research and policy analysis. According to this now often-cited and influential definition, a family is:

…any combination of two or more persons who are bound together over time by ties of mutual consent, birth and/or adoption or placement and who, together, assume responsibilities for variant combinations of some of the following:

– Physical maintenance and care of group members;
– Addition of new members through procreation or adoption;
– Socialization of children;
– Social control of members;
– Production, consumption, distribution of goods and services; and
– Affective nurturance – love.

This inclusive and functional definition of family emphasizes not only what families look like, but equally what they do in the service of their individual members and the larger society. This definition directs attention toward the work and accomplishments of people who commit themselves to one another over time – to what people do as distinct from where they live or how they are related to one another. It is a definition that acknowledges and respects the diversity of relationships in all families, including (but not limited to) families new to Canada, LGBTQ2I+ families; families living with disability; couples with and without children; extended patterns of kinship; diverse families (two-parent; solo/single/lone-parent, co-parent, lead-parent; step/blended families; foster, skip-generations, etc.); families affected by incarceration; families who have experienced violence, trauma, displacement and so forth; military and Veteran families; the connections and commitments of siblings; families of choice; and the obligations and affection that unite the young and the old as their lives weave together.

In keeping with the contentions articulated by Plumptre in 1972, the Vanier Institute has sought to understand and focus attention on the interrelated economic, political, social, technological and cultural institutions and practices that constitute the context within which family members seek to fulfill their obligations to one another and to the larger community. The Vanier Institute assesses how these institutional practices promote or impede the well-being of persons, families, communities and, ultimately, the nation.

Areas of focus for the Vanier Institute include (but are not limited to):

  • Diversity of family forms (including trends in marriage, divorce, common-law unions, remarriage, adoption, fertility and family size, teen pregnancy and parenting, ethnic diversity, patterns of family formation and functioning, geographical mobility, religious affiliation, stepfamilies, etc.)
  • Demographic change, societal aging, intergenerational relationships and intergenerational policy priorities
  • Historical patterns of family formation and functioning
  • Family as educator and family life education
  • Evolution of family law
  • Family functioning and economic provision (including trends in family incomes, expenditures, savings and debt and wealth and net worth; labour force participation of men and women; the significance of informal domestic and community production; employment/unemployment or market participation; child and family poverty; non-standard employment)
  • Time-use among family members in Canada and time stress
  • Managing work and family from employee and employer perspectives
  • Effects of media and other technology on patterns of family interaction
  • Contemporary family values

Having addressed these programmatic themes, the Vanier Institute has served Canadian society as a principal source of information and insights on family trends. The Vanier Institute has provided commentary and interpretation about family trends and the challenges confronting families for those who work to strengthen and support families.

The Vanier Institute of the Family Today (2011–2019)

In 2014, the Board of Directors of the Vanier Institute of the Family renewed its sense of vision and mission with a commitment to understand families in Canada, family life and family experiences, expectations and aspirations.

The Vanier Institute of the Family is an organization that works to serve the public interest through public education.

To succeed in meeting the goals of its programs, projects and events, the Vanier Institute must wisely steward its financial resources. The Vanier Institute continually seeks to supplement the revenues from its Endowment Fund with additional funds that are provided by external funders as a contribution to the Endowment Fund to support the core budgets or to sponsor a specific project or program of activities.

The Vanier Institute: A National Resource

On an annual basis, the Vanier Institute responds to hundreds of requests for media interviews and information from teachers, students, researchers, policy analysts and members of the public. The Vanier’s Institute’s position as a national resource for information and insights on families is based on decades’ worth of research, knowledge mobilization and collaboration with those who study, serve and support families – a body of knowledge that serves as a robust foundation for its various publications.

Partnerships and Collaborations

The Vanier Institute has also enjoyed the collaboration of numerous community groups, national non-governmental organizations and professional associations. Among those with whom the Vanier Institute has partnered on various projects are:

  • Community organizations
  • Canadian Armed Forces
  • Media
  • Federal and provincial governments
  • Colleges and universities
  • Funders, sponsors, contributors, supporters
  • Statistics Canada
  • Employers and labour organizations
  • Faith communities


Financial Foundation

In carrying out its program activities, the Vanier Institute has benefited from the support and partnership of many individuals, community groups, corporate sponsors, foundations and government departments, both federal and provincial (financial resources, human resources, technical resources, physical resources and other direct and in-kind support).

The main source of the Vanier Institute’s funding is derived from revenue earned from its Endowment Fund. The Endowment Fund is managed by a portfolio manager, currently Beutel Goodman, and the custodian of the fund is RBC Investor Services.

On an annual basis, the Board reviews the budget requirements for the coming year. Based on a five-year floating average of the market value of the portfolio, a percentage is applied to the average and that amount becomes the draw from the Endowment Fund for the coming year.

The Vanier Institute also has a variety of restricted and unrestricted funds that support the program, program innovation and strategy implementation.

Special Funds

The Vanier Institute has financed research with funding from diverse external sources (sponsorships, grants, contributions, philanthropic donations, etc.).

Over the years, a number of research publications have been financed through the Glossop (Lawson) Fund, named after Dr. Robert G. Glossop, retired Executive Director of Programs and Research at the Vanier Institute. This fund was the result of a $100,000 grant directed to the Vanier Institute by Dr. Glossop after he received the Lawson Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005 for his extraordinary contribution to the understanding of families and family life in Canada. Award recipients received a $100,000 grant to direct to the Canadian charity of their choice to help strengthen the body of knowledge in their field, and Dr. Glossop dedicated the funds to the Vanier Institute.

Family Funds and Corporate Funds Restricted and Unrestricted

Established through donations, minimum $5,000, contributed over 5 years or less, non-endowed.

  • Jean and May Fournier Family Legacy Fund, established in 2011 for a purpose to be determined at the discretion of the CEO
  • Bryan H. Spinks Legacy Fund, established in 2012 for a purpose to be determined at the discretion of the CEO
  • Gannon Family Fund, established in 2013 for a purpose to be determined at the discretion of the CEO
  • Beutel Goodman Fund, established in 2015 for a purpose to be determined at the discretion of the CEO
  • Alan Mirabelli Fund for Creativity and Innovation, established in 2017, for program innovation as determined by the CEO

Looking Back, Looking Forward

Over 50 years ago, the Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier and the Honourable Pauline Vanier envisioned an organization dedicated to understanding, and sharing the understanding of, families in Canada. This vision, along with the commitment of the founding thinkers, staff team and volunteers from across the country provided a solid foundation from which the Vanier Institute has since grown. In the half-century that followed, Canada’s “family landscape” has changed significantly, but the importance of families has not; the Vanier Institute remains as committed as ever to carry on this legacy as it continues to enhance the national understanding of families in Canada.