Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values by Brian Lee Crowley (Key Porter, $34.95, 360 pages)
In an important new book, Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada’s Founding Values, Brian Lee Crowley persuasively argues that the future prosperity of Canada depends on a revival of marriage and the family.
For Crowley, this is a new understanding. Until last year, he was living in a casual, common-law relationship. It was only during a recent stint as the Clifford Clark Visiting Economist at the federal Department of Finance that he finally came to realize that common-law relationships, single-parenthood and rampant marital breakdown are jeopardizing the economic and social well-being of Canadians.
In the preface to his book, Crowley relates that during his stint at the Finance Department: “I quickly began to realize that I couldn’t think about marriage and family on a grand scale without also thinking about marriage and family for myself and the critical things I had to say about the decisions Canadians had made in this regard over the past few decades applied just as much to me as to anyone else. I asked Shelley to marry me in February 2008 and we are about to celebrate our first anniversary as this book is being prepared for the printer. My only regret is that it took me so long to get around to it; my great joy is that Shelley would have me in spite of everything.”
Good for Crowley. He can now testify first-hand about the incomparable joys of a good and solid marriage.
Crowley insists: “Marriage matters because husbands and wives matter to each other in ways that cannot be exhaustively enumerated and that are demonstrably different from the way that unmarried cohabiting partners, for example, matter to each other. On the whole, married people like and trust one another and are committed to each other. And because getting married involves an enactment of that commitment, a visible public exchange of promises and mutual commitment, it helps to increase the likelihood that those promises and that commitment will be honoured.”
Indeed, this is so. Despite the lamentable rise in divorce rates since the Trudeau Liberals reformed Canada’s divorce legislation in 1969, marital unions in Canada are still far more enduring and stable than common-law relationships.
A good marriage is not only a blessing to husband and wives, it is also vital to the well-being of children. Crowley summarizes in his book the wealth of social science evidence that children thrive best under the care and guidance of their mothers and fathers united in the bond of marriage. He wryly notes that this evidence would have impressed our grandmothers “as perfectly self-evident.”
Our grandparents also took for granted the traditional values of productive employment and self-reliance, rather than subsistence on handouts from the state. Crowley laments that in our generation, “we had to abandon tradition for its value to become self-evident.”
In recent years, Crowley has devoted much of his research to the impending crises posed by Canada’s rapidly aging population. He points out that if current trends persist, there will only be about two workers per retiree in Canada by 2030, down from 3.25 workers per retiree today. Moreover, this dwindling proportion of workers will be saddled with tens of billions of dollars in additional annual costs just to maintain existing medicare and pension benefits for the vast numbers of baby-boom retirees.
Crowley warns that no conceivable increases in worker productivity and immigration can solve this problem. He estimates that even if Canada were to admit one million immigrants per year for the next 50 years, the proportion of elderly people in the Canadian population could still surpass 22 per cent in 2059, up from 13.2 per cent today.
What, then, can be done? Crowley asserts: “The key fact is that Canadians do not have nearly enough babies to replace the current population (a national birthrate of just over 1.5 per women of child-bearing age, versus a replacement rate of 2.1).”
This is no just an economic problem. Crowley observes: “A self-confident Canada that believes life here is good, that our institutions are robust and that we want to be a force for good in the world must at least be ready to ask itself whether our self-image as a great country with much to offer the world can be reconciled with the reality that Canadians are unwilling to replace themselves, to bring enough children into the world to ensure that Canada continues to grow, to thrive and to be a beacon of tolerance and civility to the world.”
Our grandparents would have been mystified by the collapse in Canadian birthrates. They took it for granted that children and grandchildren are an immense blessing.
Crowley cites opinion poll data indicating that even today, many potential Canadian mothers would love to have more children and to care for them in the home, but are reluctant to do so. This problem has little to do with lack of economic incentives. Our ancestors got by on a much lower standard of living and without any child tax-benefits or daycare subsidies, yet they had plenty of children.
Experience in Quebec, France, Sweden and elsewhere indicates that generous tax benefits for children can foster only a small rise in birthrates that is not nearly sufficient to sustain the population.
Crowley concludes that, more than tax breaks and incentives for mothers to have children, “we need to learn to love and trust each other better and be more committed to each other and to put the needs of our most vulnerable, our children, ahead of the desires of adults.”
As it is, many Canadian women first attempt to establish themselves in a solid career before getting pregnant, because they fear that the father of their children might abandon them to a life of impoverished single parenthood. Such concerns are well-founded. Even among married mothers, the risks of abandonment to single parenthood are far higher today than 40 years ago. Crowley concludes that the erosion of marriage stability is one of the principal reasons for the collapse in Canadian birthrates.
Crawley also draws the obvious conclusion: no-fault divorce is calamitous for mothers and children. To safeguard both, he urges Parliament to amend the divorce act so that no spouse can unilaterally dissolve a marriage with children before the youngest child reaches the age of, say, 16. He would allow exceptions only for an aggrieved spouse who can prove that the other marriage partner is guilty of some grievous fault, such as mental cruelty or physical abuse.
Divorce reform would be a good start to strengthening marriage and encouraging child-birth. It’s easy to imagine other similar initiatives, such as refocusing spousal benefits on married couples as an inducement for common-law couples to reconsider the advantages of marriage.
However, giving preference to marriage would run afoul of provisions in Canada’s modern-day human rights codes that forbid discrimination on the basis of marital status. Those provisions should be rescinded. In view of the overwhelming evidence of the damaging impact of casual common-law unions upon spouses and children, Parliament and the provincial legislatures should have no compunction about specifically shoring up the institution of marriage.
The most glaring omission in Crowley’s otherwise fine book is any acknowledgment of the calamitous impact of legalized abortion. As a compassionate man, he should pity all the grieving mothers who have been duped into thinking of abortion as an easy way out of a difficult pregnancy.
And as an expert on the perils of population aging, he should especially deplore the deaths by induced abortion of more than three million Canadian children since 1969.
Abortion is truly a national tragedy. Crowley has come a long way in recognizing the enduring importance of marriage and the family. Let us hope and pray that he and other intellectuals like him will soon also come to understand that of all the founding values of Canada, there is none more vital, none more fundamental and none more urgently in need of revival than respect for the inalienable right to life of all innocent human beings, young and old.
Rory Leishman is The Interim’s national affairs columnist.