Canada not a fertile nation

By 
  • April 13, 2007
TORONTO - Everybody who graduated from Grade 9 biology knows governments can’t make babies. But in the wake of 2006 census numbers which show Canadians failing to replace themselves, some people think the government should help the process along.
The first numbers to come out of the 2006 census showed Canada growing faster than any other G8 country, but two-thirds of the growth came in the form of 240,000 immigrants per year from 2001 to 2006. Canadian women average 1.5 babies. The replacement rate is 2.1.

Worry over fertility rates ranges from the racist argument that if white people don't start having babies Canada will be overwhelmed by non-European immigration, to the purely economic argument that we need younger workers to pay into our health and pension systems, to anxiety over how family size shapes and preserves cultural values including brotherhood, sisterhood and community — a sense that as families dwindle Canada is becoming a lonely society.

"We need family friendly policies to encourage fertility," Catholic Organization for Life and Family director Michele Boulva told The Catholic Register.

The family lobby funded by Canada's Catholic bishops and the Knights of Columbus is working on proposals for what exactly governments should do to encourage earlier and more fruitful family formation. It's too early to say what those proposals will be, said Boulva, but she looks favourably on income splitting on tax returns for families with stay-at-home mothers, increased parental leave for both men and women, and baby bonuses.

Helene Menchenton grew up the youngest of nine with six brothers and two sisters in Windsor, Nfld. Her own daughter is now 21 months old, and the nurse can see herself having one more baby before calling it quits.

But government policy might change her mind.

"Money talks, for  sure," she told The Catholic Register.

If she wasn't still paying off student loans and had the option of working half-time, a third or fourth child might be an attractive prospect, she said.

"There's so many factors for a person my age. Just everybody has $50,000 student loan debt, and there's no incentive to have a big family," she said. "You're just all about work and paying off your debt, and the cost of living is so much higher. I would be more inclined to have a big family if there were more bonuses available to me."

Longer parental leave would be another factor that might encourage Menchenton to have more than two children, but money is the biggest factor.

Though she grew up in better material circumstances than her older siblings, at a time when her mother was able to work full-time outside the house, it was still a life of hand-me-downs, constant anxiety over money and looming limitations. She hopes to give her own children a better life.

The relative absence of quality day care makes it harder for Canadian women to contemplate a third or fourth child than Swedish or French women, said University of Toronto research associate Martha Friendly.

"If you have more child care people have more children. It's correlational," she said.

All of the industrialized countries with higher birth rates than Canada, with the exception of the United States, have more extensive early childhood learning policies and more generous parental leave programs than Canada, said Friendly. She draws attention to the French system of ecoles maternelle that support young mothers with education programs when children are as young as two.

The U.S. birth rate isn't necessarily something Canada should imitate, said Friendly.

"The American birth rate is really bifurcated," she said. "There are many people who don't have any children, and the population that has many children are low income, poor, single mothers. They have a very high, for example, teenage birth rate in the United States, which we don't in Canada."

Friendly would like to see federal government policy which accepts that women are part of the work force and makes it easier for them to have both careers and babies.

Income splitting and other tax breaks would be unlikely to change the birth rate because those solutions presume that the problem is women in the work force, said Friendly.

"The reality is that women are never going to go back into the homes the way they were before for two reasons," Friendly said. "One, because they can't afford it.... The second thing is, lots of women want to be in the work force."

Allowing single income families to split their income between the parents on their tax returns would be an enormous benefit to the rich, and do next to nothing for most young parents who don't make that kind of money, said Osgoode Hall professor of tax law Neil Brooks.

"Why on earth would you create a subsidy where the more money you make the greater the subsidy?" Brooks asked.

Individuals who make $100,000 a year or more would save at least $10,000 a year if they could pretend, for tax purposes, that it is really two incomes of $50,000. An individual who makes $30,000 would save less than $1,500 with income splitting.

At the same time the program would cost the federal coffers $5 billion, making it impossible for government to deliver other programs to support families of modest income, said Brooks.

Still, the fact that a household with one income of $100,000 is taxed at a higher rate than a couple with an income of $60,000 plus an income of $40,000 troubles COLF's Boulva.

"You're punished for staying home to bring up your children. Something's wrong there," she said.

The basic problem is that the economy doesn't value the work of parenting or the experience of raising children, she said.

"If you have a career and you want to pursue your career, that should be possible," she said. "It should also be possible if you want to take time off — two, three, four years to take care of your children while they're not in school yet. You shouldn't be punished when you want to go back to work. This should be recognized as important experience."

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