Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 22, 2004
Canada needs children
Vanier Institute head says society must look after its future
By RAMON GONZALEZ
WCR Staff Writer
Canadians need to recover their sense of generosity and take it as their responsibility to care for future generations, says the executive director of the Ottawa-based Vanier Institute of the Family.
Alan Mirabelli described Canadian society as a self-interested, individualistic, isolated and segmented society that has lost its sense of community and is no longer as generous as it used to be.
After the Second World War people were quite happy to create family allowance programs and to look after everybody else's child.
But now, after a period of affluence, "nobody wants to look after everybody's child," Mirabelli lamented. "They only want to look after their own children.
"There is no way that you can develop policy that makes sense because if it makes sense for one group, it gets attacked by another group."
So what's the policy we are creating? "As much as we want to take care of 'children at risk,' my question is, Do we care about children at all as a culture?"
Mirabelli made his comments in a Nov. 12 interview prior to giving a keynote address to a social policy conference organized by the Quality of Life Commission. More than 100 people took part in the Nov. 12-13 conference at Grant MacEwan College.
In the interview, Mirabelli spoke about the notion of endowment, saying his parents' generation helped to create family allowances, excellent public school programs and university education at a reasonable cost.
"What they were thinking about was endowing the next generation with all of the talent and skill so that they, in turn, could endow the next generation," he said. "And what we find is that my generation, which is the most privileged in terms of that endowment, has turned its back on maintaining that notion of endowment. All the things that my generation enjoyed, we don't want the next generation to have because it costs too much."
The family is suffering in this society, which doesn't value children as much as it should, Mirabelli lamented. "We have a notion of the family as static - mother, father and 1.7 children. But if you look at the 3,000-year history of family, what you find is it is like an elastic band; it stretches and contracts depending on the economy and the culture that surrounds it."
The family today is at its most contracted point. "It's as small as it's ever been," Mirabelli said. "It's easy to blame the individuals and say, 'Well, young people got no interest in the sacrifices that need to be made in order to have children and raise them.'
However, young people value and look forward to having children, he said.
According to Mirabelli, young people in Canada expect to be married to a person for a lifetime with three kids, which is double the national average. "But by the time they are 25, we are lucky if they want one," he said.
Why? "Because they get a very strong message from the culture that surrounds them that says that if you have the children then you have a problem. The culture is sending them a message that says unless you are prepared to make excessive sacrifices, don't have children.
"They read the culture and say, 'If I am going to survive I better stay in school longer.' Well, that means they are not ready now to start a life till age 30. And when they start their life at age 30 they are going to have a huge school debt - $20,000 to $30,000 on average. And so when they choose to have a child - if they choose to have a child - it is so late that one is it."
In Alberta, nobody seems to care if having fewer children to assume the economic role of their parents' generation means the economy eventually withers. If the population goes down, we'll simply increase immigration.
"But when you look at a culture like Quebec's, if people choose not to have children it's not just the economy that has problems but it is the culture that dies," Mirabelli noted.
"So here is the issue when you look at it from the family lens: in Canada we look at decisions whether to have children or not to have children as pure personal decisions. But what we don't notice and don't pay attention to is that in making personal decisions the young couple, 25 years of age, has impacted the culture. So private decisions about whether to have children or not to have children have consequences on public policy."
Mirabelli said all of our public policies are built on the notion that more children will be coming up behind us and that's what's going to take care of us in our old age. And that's not what's happening.
"We have the reverse," he said. "We have fewer and fewer children being born so that by 2014, which is the year I'm supposed to retire, we'll have 1.3 million Canadians over the age of 80 and only 1.6 million pre-school children."
When Prime Minister Brian Mulroney did away with the family allowance under the pretext that "we can't afford it," he sent a symbolic message that Canadian society doesn't really care much about kids, he said.
Mirabelli spoke of a resentful and segmented society where families with children, singles and seniors compete for the same pie without realizing they are all in the same boat. "Self-interest is the governing issue," he said. Health care became the primary election issue simply because the baby boomers need it. "I'm approaching 60 so I need health care," he said. "Don't talk to me about children."
The goal of the social policy conference was to plan policy for the next decade in areas such as low income, housing, children and seniors.
Mirabelli said it is time for citizens to look at what it means to be a Canadian.
"I start by proposing that we stop being individual Canadians. We must look at our hearts for a sense of generosity. This notion that we want to be so private and isolated makes us all lonely. Without a sense of community, without a sense of giving back, there is no joy."
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