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.


Family Connections (Laetitia Martin)
Family Well-being (Jennifer Kaddatz)
Families in the Future (Ana Fostik, PhD)


  • The Honourable Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Families, Children and Social Development
  • Jane Badets, former Assistant Chief Statistician of Canada
  • Carl Cadogan, CEO, Reception House Waterloo Region
  • Heidi Cramm, PhD, OT Reg. (Ontario), Associate Professor, Queen’s University
  • Joel Denis, Executive Director, Public Health Agency of Canada
  • Ana Fostik, PhD, Family Demographer, The Vanier Institute of the Family
  • Don Giesbrecht, CEO, Canadian Child Care Federation
  • Jack Jedwab, PhD, President and CEO, Association for Canadian Studies
  • Jennifer Kaddatz, Special Advisor, The Vanier Institute of the Family
  • Tasha Kheiriddin, Media Commentator
  • Laetitia Martin, Analyst, The Vanier Institute of the Family
  • Joanne Schnurr, Journalist and Communications Specialist
  • Nora Spinks, CEO, The Vanier Institute of the Family
  • Lisa Wolff, Director, Policy and Education, UNICEF Canada
  • Senator Donna Dasko
  • Andrew Sofin, MA, RMFT, TCF, RP, President, Canadian Association for Marriage and Family Therapy

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 challen