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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Birth Rate

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

The birth rate is calculated on the number of live births in a territory in a given year divided by the total population of that territory. The rate is usually expressed per thousand people. As in the case of the fertility rate, the birth rate may fluctuate a great deal. Aside from the factors raised in the discussion on the fertility rate to explain variations, the birth rate may also be affected by an imbalance between males and females. Thus, in the early days of New France, the fertility rate was quite high but the birth rate was quite low as there were few women in Canada before 1663. An area of intense out migration will have a relatively low birth rate while the reverse will be true in areas receiving large numbers of immigrants [migrants are usually young]. Cultural practices regarding age of marriage, length of widowhood and possibilities of remarriage, incidence of celibacy, and use of birth control practices will all affect the birth rate. Religion, education and class are especially recognised as having incidence on the marriage rate, and hence on the birth rate.

Much has been said and written about the birth and fertility rates of Quebec in the past. It is not uncommon for superficial and non scholarly observers to write as if Quebec women of the XIXth century averaged 12-15 children [the reality was around 6-7 children between 1850-1870]. This supposed exuberance at procreation is said to have been activated by what is called “the revenge of the cradle”, a sort of collective desire to take revenge on the Conquest of 1760, and on the eventual growth of the anglophone population into a majority, by recapturing the majority position and drowning the anglophone population in a “bath” of French Catholic babies! That there have been people in Quebec to argue such things only demonstrates that silliness is pretty well evenly distributed around the world... That there have been people outside of Quebec to believe that Quebec families had such a high number of children only reminds us how easily folklore and inexact images of a people may be spread abroad!

In reality, there was nothing extraordinary about the Quebec birth and fertility rates until about 1870. The rates found in New France, and in Quebec, to the late XIXth century are merely in the high normal range of a well-fed European population on the North American continent, only somewhat higher that what was found in Europe at the time. In fact, if truth be told, Ontario had a higher birth rate than Quebec in the middle of the XIXth century, a fact few ever recognise in their writings. [see much data and information in Hubert Charbonneau, Vie et mort de nos ancêtres, Montreal, Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1975, 268p.]

However, Western nations eventually all entered a “modern” demographic regime. France was the first country to do so in the late XVIIIth and early XIXth centuries. It was soon followed by many other areas. The new demographic regime showed significant, and permanent, decline in the birth, fertility and marriage rates, gains in lowering the infant mortality and death rates, and a corresponding increase in the use of contraception. Given the increasing use of birth control, we note a direct link between economic cycles and the birth rate. As well, the more childbirth could be controlled with contraception, the less fluctuation in the marriage rate one finds, even in poor economic conditions. The net effect of the new demographic regime was to progressively reduce the rate of population growth to the point where population stabilised, and in some cases even declined. In Ontario, the new demographic regime, with the increasing use of contraception, started around 1870. Over the next two generations, the birth rate of Ontario fell by two-thirds, and even when the Great Depression occurred the marriage rate was hardly affected. The different means of controlling population used in the traditional and the modern demographic regimes are illustrated by two of the earliest writers on population: Thomas Malthus and Francis Place. In his Essay on the Principle of Population [1798], Malthus recognised that population could be checked by “vice” [read birth control], which he sought to discourage, and by “moral restraint”, i.e. the postponement of marriage to later years or celibacy. In arguing this point, he reflected very well the traditional position in condemning birth control. By contrast, Francis Place, who published in London, in 1822, his Illustrations and Proofs of the Principle of Population, advocated squarely the use of birth control as the best way to control population. Place was followed by many such advocates in the XIXth century. While many states attempted to discourage the use of birth control, even persecuted those that preached it too openly, nevertheless, it spread progressively to the more advanced areas of the Western World such as in the United States and in Ontario. Thus, contraception was less discouraged, and more broadly used in Ontario than in Quebec. Consequently, its demographic regime shows a sharp change after 1870.

By contrast, over the same two generations after 1870, the decline in the birth rate was far less significant in Quebec as it only fell by about one-third. Thus, the new demographic regime also affected Quebec but to a much smaller extent, and much more slowly. Some of the decline in the birth rate was achieved by significant decreases in the marriage rate. This is evident in the Great Depression. Demographer Jacques Henripin [see Naître ou ne pas Être, Quebec, Institut Québécois de la culture, 1989, 141p.] has hypothesised that Quebec probably had the lowest marriage rate of all of the provinces of Canada by 1931. This is likely to be true given the less than widespread use of contraception.

What would explain the persistence of the traditional demographic regime in Quebec when elsewhere, on the North American continent, the situation was changing rapidly? This issue has not been sufficiently addressed in Quebec historiography and we are somewhat left with conjecture. As contraception is a prime factor in explaining the decline of the birth rate elsewhere, and its use is related to knowledge and education, demographers have noted that level of education and class status had impact on the use of contraception. The higher the education, and the better the economic status, the more likely one was to know about and use contraception. The general poverty found in Quebec, and the relatively low level of education of the population, keeping in mind that education was in the hands of the Roman Catholic clergy, would explain in part the different comportment of Quebecers. Most French speaking Quebecers continued to live in poor rural areas in relative isolation, and where children were an integral part of the productive unit of the farm, providing much needed free labour in the absence of widespread mechanisation of the farms. Thus, in these rural communities, there were not necessarily valid economic reasons for the use of birth control. We also know that religion had an impact on demographic comportment. The Roman Catholic Church disapproved of abortion and contraception, and widely preached that procreation was the first aim, and duty, of Catholic marriages. Thus, traditional behaviour was encouraged and little, if any, sexual education was provided in the schools or elsewhere. The effect was probably that far fewer Quebecers knew about contraception, or cared to use it, given the strong proscriptions by the Church on its use. Major advances in Quebec in the new demographic regime will only be achieved as industrialisation, urbanisation, and a lessening of the influence of the Catholic Church in French Canadian society took place. In this respect, it should be noted that the number of children born to married women in Quebec in 1901 was 7.8 for rural women and only 3.4 for urban ones.

The very sharp decline in the birth rate witnessed in Quebec in the 1960’s, throughout the Quiet Revolution, was thus a fast catching up to the behaviour that others had achieved more progressively previously. As traditional behaviour was abandoned throughout the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, the demographic comportment of Quebecers altered in a very rapid way. Between 1959 and 1971, Quebec moved from the position of having the highest birth rate in Canada to that of the lowest. This transformation was to have all kinds of effects on the status of women in Quebec, on the family, on education and the economic status of the population, on employment, on how Quebecers viewed their collective security given their diminishing proportion in Canada. It thus affected the language issue within Quebec and the rise of separatism.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College