In June 2014, the Vanier Institute of the Family launched the national Families in Canada Listening Tour at L’Arche Ottawa, a cousin organization founded by Jean Vanier – son of Vanier Institute founders General The Right Honourable Georges P. Vanier and Madame Pauline Vanier. Attended by Her Excellency Sharon Johnston, it was a special milestone for L’Arche and the Vanier Institute, both celebrating 50 years of service. Members of L’Arche discussed their experiences in their families of origin as well as those they have created at L’Arche, a home for people with intellectual disabilities. L’Arche provides an opportunity for these adults to live independently and participate in daily life activities together in a familial setting. The event was informative, insightful and inspirational, foreshadowing the success of the Listening Tour.

The Vanier Institute embarked on the Listening Tour leading up to and during the Families in Canada Conference 2015 to focus on the stories behind the statistics from across the country. After a half-century of studying and discussing Canada’s families, it was time to “hand over the microphone” to engage in conversation about the experiences and realities of Canada’s diverse families from coast to coast to coast. Rather than having experts speak to and about families in a traditional speaking tour, the Vanier Institute structured a listening tour to hear from people who study, serve and support families as well as families themselves.

Listening Tour events were hosted by community partners facilitating inclusive conversations. Each event was as unique as the people who comprised them. Some were small kitchen table dialogues in informal settings, while others were larger events in community centres and workplaces. Some featured workshops that directly engaged children, parents, grandparents, front-line service providers and educators. Participants were invited to tell their stories or express themselves in writing, art and/or video. This diversity of expression allowed the Vanier Institute to collect information and gain unique insights into modern families and family life. Participants said that they felt comfortable, respected, heard, included and understood.

Listening Tour events began with participants completing the phrase “Family is…” with one word. Each time, we gathered the responses and used them to generate a word cloud (see Volume 45, Number 2 of Transition magazine for examples). The purpose of this activity was to determine similarities and differences in our personal and professional understandings of family. Although each word cloud was unique, the top three responses we gathered were, overwhelmingly, LOVE, CARE and SUPPORT – themes that always stood out regardless of who provided the responses and that later shaped the Families in Canada Conference 2015.

Voices from all generations were heard: children and youth, adults, seniors and elders in multigenerational settings and age-specific groupings. We listened to people who were experiencing their first six weeks of living in Canada and we listened to Indigenous families who have been here since time immemorial. We listened to diverse realities not shared by most Canadians, including families affected by incarceration, life on the streets, growing up in group homes and aging out of foster care. We listened to families living with low incomes to those in the “top 1%,” from the employed, unemployed and retired, from family enterprises and families on the farm. We listened to students of all ages from across the country – high school, college and university – as well as educators from a variety of disciplines.

The Families in Canada Listening Tour highlighted the diversity of Canada’s families and the complex mosaic of cultures, languages, generations, faiths, identities, socio-economic backgrounds and experiences that weave together to form the family landscape of the country. But it was much more than that! The Vanier Institute launched the Listening Tour to breathe life into the data and document the lives of individuals behind family research. The Listening Tour gave people from across the country an active role in helping us understand families and family life in Canada.

The themes expressed in the stories we heard shaped the Families in Canada Conference 2015 program, guiding the speaker panels and the catalytic conversations. The diverse perspectives catalogued throughout the Listening Tour continue to contribute to program design, focus and content. Families at these events have made direct contributions to our publications. New networks were established and existing ones were nurtured. The Listening Tour will have an impact on the Vanier Institute’s work, now and in the years ahead.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank our community partners and participants who contributed to the success of the national Families in Canada Listening Tour. It’s been a valuable experience that has informed our work and enhanced our understanding of the diversity and complexity of families and the reality of family life. In light of this, we’ve decided to continue these dialogues and document the stories of Canada’s families. We will share our findings with you as we continue along the journey of discovery and engage in conversation about, for and with Canada’s families.