Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Canadian exceptionalism revisited

Saturday the 1st of July was Canada Day, Canada's national holiday celebrating the formation of an autonomous Canadian state back on that date in 1867. In the 139 years since Canada's creation, the country's population has grown ninefold, this growth driven by a relatively strong rate natural increase and fairly heavy net migration.

In the past generation, the Canadian population has begun to evolve in ways that sets it apart from its peers. The province of Québec's historically high birth rate has famously collapsed after the Second World War. Michel-Louis Lévy's 1988 French-language paper "Le cas du Québec", published in the July-August 1988 of INED's Population et sociétés, makes clear the singularity of Québec in the developed Francophone world. What isn't widely known is that English Canada shares in Québec's low fertility rates, that all of Canada participates in a distinctive demographic regime characterized by low fertility rates and by high levels of immigration. The wealthiest provinces of Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta continue to exhibit high rates of population growth, but save in Alberta this population growth is increasingly the product of migration surpluses. Tables 1.9 and 1.10 here shows in detail how Canadians went from having the highest TFRs in the economically developed Anglophone and Francophone worlds at the beginning of the 20th century to having the lowest at that century's end.

In his 1996 Boom, Bust and Echo, Canadian demographer David Foot claimed that Canada's post-war baby boom was the largest in the developed world. Starting in 1947--according to Foot a year later than in the United States, perhaps because Canadian troops came home from Europe a year later than their American counterparts--the Canadian boom lasted until 1966, for a total length of nearly two decades. 1947. The length of the baby boom is matched by its intensity, Foot arguing that the Canadian baby boom was also more intense than its counterparts, with 4 children per Canadian family at the Canadian baby boom's peak, versus 3.7 children per family in the United States and just 3 babies per family in Australia. This intensity was perhaps fostered by Canadians' historical identification of their group identities with a well-articulated if self-consciously conservatism.

The United States endorsed a limited, decentralized government, a concept of individual political rights that took precedence over notions of social order and harmony, and an unfettered free market in which citizens could compete for “happiness” (the Continental Congress’ code word for property). Canadian history gives testimony to a greater respect for authority, a recognition of the role of the state in guaranteeing “peace, order and good government,” and a skeptical attitude toward human nature which devalued individual rights as contributory to debauchery, depravity and social dissolution. The United States was an experiment in Lockean liberalism; Canada was an exercise in Burkean reaction.

Canadian antipathy to what sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset would later call “the first new nation” arose from the incompatible ideologies of its founding cultures[, of p]re-revolutionary, rural and pious Québec on the one hand, and counter-revolutionary, tory Canada on the other hand, built on the conservative ideas of United Empire Loyalists[.]

This historical identification may well be a myth, but it did reflect the relative conservatism of Canada relative to its British patron and its American neighbour. Before Confederation, some radicals in British North America favoured their colonies' annexation into the United states in order to escape the deadweight of British rule, while those Canadians who took part in the massive Canadian emigration in the half-century after Confederation often did so in search for the mobility and the freedoms that they couldn't enjoy at home. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that Canada has traditionally been quite conservative, Anglophones and Francophones each holding onto the conservative traditions of their ancestral homelands and other ethnic groups left mostly to themselves.

This old rigid conservatism has famously changed recently. Canada is a much more individualistic and much less hierarchical society than ever before. The various quiet revolutions of the post-war era, supplemented by multiculturalism and open immigration policies, have helped break down the old certainties in a fairly short amount of time. The Liberal federal government of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, through its transformation of almost every element of Canadian life from language policy to sex laws, helped transform a country already under pressure from a large baby boom. After Trudeau's departure, Canada's embrace of a steamlined globalized capitalism as described by Peter Newman in his 1996 The Canadian Revolution: From Deference to Defiance helped undermine those few remaining traditions of deference that had survived previous decades. Canada may be many things, but it can no longer be described as self-consciously conservative.

These changing Canadian values have certainly played a role in Canadian fertility. Torrey and Eberstadt's recent comparative study of Canadian and American fertility ("The Northern America Fertility Divide", August/September 2005 in Policy Review) demonstrates the fertility gap is convincingly explained only by reference to the different values of the two societies: Canadians tend to postpone marriage and prefer civil unions; Canadian women now have more abortions than before (though still fewer than American women); Canadians are significantly less likely to be religious. Even after these factors are taken into account, Canadian fertility still seems unusually low compared to peer countries which evidence similar trends like the United Kingdom or France. Might not the final piece of the puzzle lie in the comparative speed of Canada's transition from tradition-bound conservatism to a more pragmatic openness? Granted that the effects on Canadian fertility of this transformation haven't been as significant as they have been in (for instance) Spain or South Korea, Canada wasn't transformed as profoundly as those countries. The Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador, transformed in the space of a half-century from a desperately poor, culturally divided and largely rural territory dominated by the fisheries into an increasingly wealthy, integrated and urban province, did undergo a transformation of comparable intensity; accordingly, its fertility showed the sharpest fall of any Canadian province, the province's TFR falling from 4.6 in 1966 to 1.3 in 1994.

The example of Canada, besides providing a partial counterexample to the global trend of relatively high TFRs in economically developed Anglophone and Francophone countries, tends to confirm the thesis that the quicker a country's social modernization the more precipitous the drop in its TFRs. If anything, if Canadian fertility is influenced by this effect, it suggests that the consequences of this rapid modernization will be profound globally. In Canada's particular case, tempo effects might well lead to an increase in completed fertility in Canada. Even if this does happen, the past two generations of rapid social change will still have most definitely left their mark on Canada's population.


Dan Goodman said...

The English-speaking (mostly) country which has had a relatively low birthrate and high emigration rate the longest is Ireland.

Note: While in theory Canada is more receptive to central control than the US, in practice there are areas in which the Provinces have more power than US States. Forestry is one example.

Noel Maurer said...

The logical way to procede in a case like this is to act like Sherlock Holmes: eliminate the impossible hypotheses, and assume whatever's left must be true.

Your hypothesis about social modernization is annoyingly vague. How do you propose to measure the independent variable? Heck, after reading the post I'm still unsure what it even means, or what your evidence is that Canada has gotten more of it more quickly than, say, anywhere else. ("The Canadian Revolution" is not a comparative book, and reads as a rather exaggerated analysis to someone familiar with recent European and Latin American history, let alone the southern United States.)

On the other hand, you can test the other hypotheses to which you refer. The remarkably bad article in Policy Review seems to show (contrary to the author's claim) that higher abortion rates are not the cause of declining Canadian fertility compared to other countries. But what about fertility postponement? Later marriages? A flatter income distribution? Is Canadian desired fertility different, or just Canadian achieved fertility?

There are a lot of interesting questions, but your post doesn't seem to answer many of them. The fundamental hypothesis is extremely vague, since you don't propose how one might operationalize "social modernization." Nor do you suggest why we should expect that rigorous analysis would reject alternative explanations.

A cursory glance at Canadian population pyramids suggests that something happened in 1991, but it's not at all clear that the fall in Canadian TFR's is anything more than a reflection of the interaction between Canada's exaggerated baby boom and fertility postponement among 20-something Canadians.

In short, you've got the core of an interesting idea, but it's currently too vague to tell us much about Canadian fertility. Demographic posts, as you know, require more rigor to be informative. Can you suggest how your hypothesis might be operationalized?

Randy said...


The example of Ireland is obviously relevant. What happens with Irish fertility matters, as does, for that matter, differences in fertility within the United Kingdom.

S.M. Stirling said...

a) once again, we see that the US experience and the rest of the West diverged in the 1970's and the gap has been increasing since.

b) later data accentuate this.

Since 2000, US TFR has increased from 2.0 to 2.09 -- about a tenth of a child. This continues the post-1970's trend and there's every reason to believe it will continue.

The change is driven by three factors:

Higher, but falling, Hispanic birthrates.

Non-Hispanic white birthrates which are still lower than the Hispanic (overall) level, but which are consistently rising; and

Falling birthrates among non-Hispanic minority groups. (Black TFR's are at or below the white level for the first time in American history, for example.)

c) Differences between Canada and the US are accentuated by Quebec. Quebec is far more "European" in most senses than Anglophone Canada.

If you eliminate Quebec, the Canadian provinces are much less different from the US states on which they border.

The biggest remaining difference is that Canada has no equivalent of the US South and Southwest.

CV said...

Very interesting post Randy ... I am, as you obviously know, going to Canada as an exchange student to Montréal for five months starting in August and it is always good to know a bit about where you are going which lies beyond the Lonely Planet guide (although this volume is very good) ... :)

I believe your point is important and also valid yet it is perhaps difficult to gauge. However, there is no doubt that changing values and norms have an effect on fertility; i.e both the tempo effect and quantity/quality trade off.

Randy said...


There are a lot of interesting questions, but your post doesn't seem to answer many of them. The fundamental hypothesis is extremely vague, since you don't propose how one might operationalize "social modernization." Nor do you suggest why we should expect that rigorous analysis would reject alternative explanations.

This post was intended to create a debate with a new hypothesis--i.e. that rapid Canadian cultural change has shifted TFRs from levels above the US average to levels below. As always, your critiques of the argument are welcome.

S.M. Stirling:

Québec brings Canadian TFRs down, to be sure, but not that much. Maine's TFR of 1.65 children born per woman is higher not only than Québec's but higher than all of Atlantic Canada's, New York (1.72 children) and Michigan (1.88 children) are substantially ahead of Ontario, and Washington and Oregon (1.72 and 1.76 children) are well ahead of British Columbia.

I'm inclined to suspect that Alberta is the only province with American-style fertility rates, Manitoba and Saskatchewan having TFRs biased upwards by large First Nations populations.


I'm rather fond of the Rough Guides series, myself!

The degree of catchup will be interesting to watch, I think.

S.M. Stirling said...

Of course, a lot of Canadian immigrants (important in BC and Ontario, particularly) are from low-TFR countries like China.

shwilurker said...

is like everyone here a SHWIER or ex-SHWIER?