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Tim Sargent: We are not taking Canada’s fertility crisis seriously enough

Commentary

Families matter. Not only are families the place where children, the future of any society, are born and raised, but for most people, forming a stable and loving relationship, setting up a home, and raising children are amongst the most important and fulfilling achievements of their lives. Having strong and stable families is an essential goal for any society that wants to maximize human flourishing, both now and in the future. 

And yet, not just in Canada but across the Western world, families have been buffeted for more than a generation by changing economic and social trends, including the decline of well-paying jobs for less-educated workers, changing laws and social norms around marriage and divorce, the rise of the internet and social media and its impacts on everything from mental health to dating behaviour, declining housing affordability—particularly for first-time buyers—and in the last three years, COVID and the resultant lockdowns.

Now that COVID appears to be behind us and the first smartphone generation—Generation Z—is entering adulthood, this is a good moment to take stock of Canadian families: is being in an intact two-parent family uniquely beneficial? Are younger generations finding it harder to form and maintain families? What is happening to birth rates? Are more children living in one-parent families?

In a new study for the Macdonald–Laurier Institute, I look at these questions. 

It is very clear from the data and the associated literature that the lifetime benefits from being raised by two biological parents, getting married, and then staying married, are very significant indeed for most people both in terms of income and broader well-being: 

  • An adult aged 25 to 34 in a couple has a standard of living one-third higher than a single person.
  • A child in a two-parent family has a standard of living 50 percent higher than a child in a one-parent family.
  • Married adults have higher longevity and better overall mental and physical health than single adults.
  • Children raised by two biological parents do better than those raised in one-parent families or in families with a step-parent.
The situation in Canada

However, despite these advantages, young people in Canada are less likely to form couples and have children, and when they do, a significant proportion of children will see the break up of their family. The data are clear that:

Young Canadians are delaying leaving home: One-fifth of adults (and one-quarter of men) aged 25 to 34 live with their parents, and this proportion has been growing over the past 20 years and is significantly higher than in the U.S. or the U.K.

Canadians are remaining single longer: Almost 60 percent of 25- to 29-year-olds, and a third of 30- to 34-year-olds, are single and have never been married. This proportion has been growing over the past twenty years and is higher than in the U.S. or the U.K.

Canadian women are having fewer babies: The fertility rate in Canada has dropped to 1.3 children per woman, down from 1.6 only six years earlier, because of a rapid decline in fertility among women under 30. Canada now has the third-lowest fertility rate in the G7, significantly lower than in Germany, the U.S., or the U.K., and close to Italy and Japan.

A high proportion of Canadian children no longer live with their original parents: A third of Canadian children will see their original families break up by the time they are 14. More than a quarter of Canada’s children live in a one-parent family, significantly more than in France or the U.K., and more even than in the U.S..

A couple pushes a stroller through Fall leaves at Trinity Bellwoods Park, Toronto, Thursday, October 28, 2021. Eduardo Lima/The Canadian Press.
The roots of the issue

What is causing these trends? This is a more difficult question to answer. There seems to be a mix of economic and social factors at work. 

While the economic position of young adults has actually been improving, they are certainly finding it harder to afford a house. Housing prices have risen considerably since 2006, both relative to other prices in the economy and to other countries, and in consequence, homeownership rates are down, particularly for younger people.

People are also spending longer in higher education, which often means delaying marriage and childbearing until they have a stable job. 

At the same time, the mental health of young people has deteriorated sharply, and anxiety about the future has risen significantly. Only half of women aged 15 to 30 reported very good or excellent mental health, down from three-quarters 10 years previously. The proportion of Canadians aged 15–34 hopeful about the future has declined by 15 percentage points since 2016. 

And finally, could lower fertility simply be a result of people not valuing children as much? This does not seem to be the case. In a recent study commissioned by the think tank Cardus, women said that they would like to have 2.2 children on average, which is well above the current level of 1.3. This is consistent with evidence from other countries.

What can we do?

What does all this mean for governments? Nothing good.

A society with fewer couples, high rates of single parenthood, and fewer children will have higher rates of loneliness and depression, lower incomes for adults, worse outcomes for children, and will struggle to afford health care, pensions, and elder care for its elderly population. 

Governments therefore have every reason to worry about the trends in family formation and fertility we have uncovered and to look at policies that would try to ameliorate the negative trends we are observing. 

Any such policy agenda would have to consider all three life cycle events where we see negative trends: leaving home, forming a couple, and having children. Policymakers need to find ways to allow young people to marry, afford a house, and have children earlier.

Such policies could include: 

  • Making housing more affordable, especially single-family homes;
  • Using the tax and transfer system to incentivize family growth and the raising of children; 
  • Helping parents with the cost of child care, preferably in a way that increases the supply of places;
  • Finding ways to reduce the formal educational requirements for jobs so that people can enter the labour market earlier.

However, perhaps the most important step in addressing declining family formation, dropping marriage rates, and deteriorating fertility is to first recognize that these problems exist, that they are serious challenges facing our society, and that they should be a top priority for policymakers in Canada.  

Andrew Kirsch: I am a former CSIS intelligence officer. It would be nice if the PM took our security advice seriously

Commentary

I first Googled “How do I become a Canadian spy” in July 2005. I was living in London, U.K. working in finance when a bus and several subway stations had just been blown up by domestic homegrown terrorists only a few blocks from my office. Fifty-two people were killed and 770 were injured. Just four years earlier when two passenger planes hit the Twin Towers murdering nearly 3,000, I was a senior at Brown University in Rhode Island. This was followed by terrorists killing 191 civilians on a Madrid train. For those who don’t remember this time period, it was the age of terrorism. It was an age where not only did you know what the threat was, but it felt very real and dangerously close. 

So, I signed up to be an intelligence officer with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and joined the Canadian Forces Infantry Reserves with the Queens Own Rifles of Canada. I became part of a generation of young, idealistic Canadians who, as one of my former colleagues put it, “ran away and joined the circus.” We wanted to serve Canada and really weren’t all that sure what that meant or how to do it. If I’m honest, my first Google search was actually “Does Canada have spies?”

I would go on to spend nearly a decade serving in both organizations, leaving in 2016. Looking back, I am extremely proud of where I worked, what we accomplished, and the important work my former colleagues continue to do to keep Canada and Canadians safe. I was able to share some of this in my memoir, but most of it will always be a secret. 

When I wore my army uniform in public, people used to walk up to me and thank me for my service. But my military career was mostly confined to parade nights at the armoury and the occasional weekend exercise in rural Ontario. It was while wearing my intelligence officer uniform (a generic button-down shirt and navy blue blazer) that I got to do the cool spy stuff that no one would ever know about or thank me publicly for.

Working long hours, dealing with stressful cases, and then lying to everyone I knew about what I was up to was a challenge. Occasionally you’d get a rah-rah speech from CSIS management saying things like, “The powers that be [the politicians in power] really appreciate everything you’re doing. They were so impressed with the information you were able to collect and you are making a real difference in the safety of our country.” It was a thankless job in many ways, but we did it because we believed we were making a difference.

Today, I am not sure how any executive at CSIS will be able to stand up and give that speech with a straight face after watching Prime Minister Trudeau and senior officials at the foreign interference inquiry hearings say under oath, repeatedly, that they don’t often read CSIS  briefs. That they take our intelligence with a huge grain of salt. That they don’t think our findings are worth following up on. 

“There is a certain degree of—I would not say skepticism—but of critical thought that must be applied to any information collected by our security and intelligence services,” explained Prime Minister Trudeau.

The reason this is a major problem is not the hurt feelings of former spies, but what it reveals about the government’s attitude towards its spy agency and perhaps the wider public’s views on security. It’s an attitude that poses problems for the future security of Canada. There has always been a naiveté and complacency about the threats we face in an increasingly dangerous world. Canadians just don’t think much about our security. There is a general attitude of: “What does anyone want with us?” The lack of pressure the public is applying to government to fund our military in recent years may be a good illustration of this. 

The reality is that our national security is not an accident. It is the result of thousands of men and women in our intelligence community, military, law enforcement, and corporate security, getting up each day and going to work. The safety we enjoy is on some level proof that the system is working. This also means our security is not guaranteed to continue. I believe Canada has been able to get by on the sacrifices of the few men and women who do these jobs, and that our political leadership, despite a lack of political pressure, has taken generally this threat seriously. Unfortunately, I fear that as the threats we face become more nuanced, those we entrust with our safety are increasingly unwilling or not sufficiently empowered to protect us. 

The CSIS mandate is to collect, analyse, and advise government on threats to the security of Canada. There are four main threats: espionage and sabotage, foreign interference, terrorism, and subversion. It was my job to be a “collector” of information.  As an intelligence officer for a domestic security service in the post-9/11 days, I was in the coffee and conversation business. I would often knock on doors 20 minutes from where I grew up, asking people for information and help with my national security investigation. 

Back then when we tackled enemies like the 2006 Toronto 18 terrorists and the 2013 Via Rail derailment plot, it was a pretty straightforward job. We didn’t want to see the domestic attacks we saw around the world happen here at home. They were tangible threats we could see and easily explain at those doorsteps.  

Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino, left, and Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), David Vigneault, right, wait to appear before the Special Committee on Canada-People’s Republic of China Relationship (CACN) on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press.

The threats CSIS is being asked to monitor today are far more nuanced and less visible. My colleagues and I used to worry about bombs going off in capital cities, but now an act of terrorism could be someone hacking into a water treatment plant to change chemical levels. In my day, foreign interference was honey traps and the attempted blackmail of elected officials. Now, we are uncovering potential state-sponsored misinformation campaigns during elections. Espionage and sabotage are rampant in the theft of IP and the hacking of companies. These threats are far less tangible and often difficult to attribute to a single source. Often we’re left with no easy answers to mitigate the risk. 

Meanwhile, during this period when threats are evolving, our security apparatus is left to contend with a political leadership that is hesitant to listen to our warnings and seemingly content with avoiding having to deal with them.

Recently the government announced legislation to counter the threat of foreign interference, including expanding CSIS powers and a foreign agent registry. While many will be applauding these actions, I can’t help but think back to how this all began and what it took to finally get government to act. The public inquiry was the result of political pressure caused by the leaking of sensitive information to the media on the growing threats and their continued inaction on foreign interference. Leaking is wrong. It’s also not done lightly. It is a symptom of an intelligence service that felt its reports and advice were not being dealt with appropriately. I hope this is a wake-up call because it’s a terrible way to make national security policy.

I worry about what all of this means for Canadian security. What has this complacency meant for the next generation of army reservists and intelligence officer recruits? 

In 2024, what is prompting their Google searches before submitting a job application to CSIS? And what are they going to encounter if they get there? In my time working for the intelligence service, it was a growing organization capitalizing off of a strong mandate, an army of bright-eyed recruits, and a risk-tolerant executive. Today, I fear that, at a time when their job is more difficult than ever, we may be losing our will to support those who are working to keep us safe. This is a dangerous direction to be going in.