Quebec’s tradition of large, strong families may have ended, and the reasons for this radical change are rooted in its recent history.

The shift in political, cultural and economic power which grew out of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec included a move away from the Catholic Church, which many considered complicit in the oppression of the Quebecois.  By repudiating the Church, however, Quebecers have simultaneously disavowed the core of their culture.  The seemingly endless battles to protect the French language here is essential, because the traditions of faith and family are fading, especially among the young.  There is little else to protect this “distinct society” from disappearing.

The latest chapter in this tragic story is Quebec’s escalating rate of teen pregnancy.  Health and Social Services minister, Marc-Yvan Côté, addressed the problem recently in connection with the government’s plan to reduce premature and underweight births.  From 1980 to 1990, the rate of pregnancies rose from 12.5 per 1000 fourteen to seventeen-year-old girls to 18.8 per 1000, a fifty per cent increase.  The rate is about 40 per cent higher than the rest of Canada.

Mr. Côté’s important efforts to provide expectant mothers with better nutrition and prenatal care are praiseworthy, but they do not address the real issue of teenage pregnancy which is far more complicated and deeply disturbing.  While the rate of teenage pregnancy has risen dramatically the teenage birth rate has remained stable, approximately 6 per 1000 14 to 17 year-old-girls.

This suggests that abortion has increasingly become the “solution” to teen pregnancy, effectively becoming a popular method of birth control, with young girls aborting two out of three unborn babies.

In addition, four out of ten babies are born out of wedlock.  That’s double the rate in the rest of Canada.  Although many of these births are to parents who cohabit, studies show that such arrangements are less stable than traditional marriages.

“All told, about three-quarters of children born to co-habiting couples will live in a single-parent home at least briefly,” writes Barbara Dafoe Whitehead in her very informative article, “Dan Quayle Was Right.”  (The Atlantic Monthly, April 1993).

Whereas people used to speak of broken families, today we see many families that were never formed.  Children whose parents are apart are far more likely to encounter both emotional and economic deprivation than children who are raised by their married biological parents.

Whitehead points to a shift in the “social metric” in which adult well-being has become more important than child well-being.  Fewer than half of all adult Americans even believe that sacrificing for others is a positive moral virtue.  This change in societal values has certainly been detrimental to children, while it has allowed adults to return to adolescent behaviour with relative ease.

Why this trend is so pronounced in Quebec is open to speculation.  The laissez-faire attitude toward personal decisions is particularly strong here, perhaps in reaction to the historically strong presence in the pulpit.  Meanwhile, the external effects of emotional, social and physical deprivation are just beginning to be felt.

While the government shies away from issues of “choice,” it is forced to pick up the tab for a variety of anti-poverty efforts caused, in part, by the breakdown of the family.  Mr. Côté plans to provide poor pregnant women with coupons for eggs, milk and oranges.  Then he will offer bonuses for breastfeeding and coupons for infant formula because the children of poor mothers are often fed cow’s milk, which causes nutritional problems.  Then his colleague, the Minister of Education, will try to fine the funds to offer poor children lunch at school, because their performance suffers from lack of adequate nutrition.

These programs are important.  But they are band-aid solutions to a massive social problem which no one seems willing to acknowledge exists.

These problems of family structure are not unique to Quebec; they are problems of the Western world.  But they seem to run deeper here.  The family, historically the strength of Quebec, is in peril, and with it surely lies the fate of this province and its people.