French Canadian Families
The Quebec Family And Marriage
Until the mid 1970s, the Quebec family was based on marriage. Society's norms permitted men and women to live together only if they were bound by a legal union. Moreover, the frequency of marriage before the age of fifty was stable and high: for both men and women, it has remained between 80 and 90 percent among all generations born after 1900 and before 1950. At the same time, for these cohorts, age at marriage decreased from twenty-eight to twenty-five for men, whereas women's average age dropped from twenty-five to twenty-two (Lapierre-Adamcyk and Péron 1983).
Marriage stability was strong; most marriages ended only with the death of one spouse. In Canada, and particularly in Quebec where the Catholic Church's rule prevailed, divorce was practically impossible until 1969, when an important bill was accepted by the Canadian Parliament, making divorce accessible to couples who acknowledged the failure of their marriage. After this, marriage changed from being an irrevocable institution to being a commitment that could be questioned. During the following decades, divorce increased to the point that by the end of the twentieth century, Quebec couples had one of the highest divorce rates in the world, estimated at about 50 percent (Duchesne 2001).
As divorce rates increased, marriage rates declined. In the early 1970s, the total nuptiality rate (indicator analog to the total fertility rate and summarizing current yearly age-specific marriage rates as the proportion of men or women who would get married before age fifty) was about 90 percent. It dropped quickly to less than 50 percent at the beginning of the 1980s and reached 35 percent by the end of the 1990s (Duchesne 2001). This indicator is lower than any marriage rate recorded in other regions of Canada, where legal marriage remained quite popular. By the end of the 1990s, it was lower than in European countries like Denmark and Norway where total nuptiality rates fell as early as 1970 (Duchesne 2001; Sardon 2000).
Nevertheless, because people are not getting married does not mean that they have become uninterested in conjugal life: while marriage was becoming less popular, common-law unions grew as the preferred choice of young couples who wanted to live together. In the early 1990s in Quebec, 80 percent of young women chose cohabitation when they first entered conjugal life. The growing importance of common-law unions is impressive indeed: practically nonexistent before 1970, this type of union included 50 percent of couples in 1996 (among women are aged 15–34). This remarkable evolution has not fully compensated for the decline of marriage; for example, in 1971, among women aged fifteen to thirty-four, 48 percent lived in a union while in 1996 only 44 percent did so. Moreover, the changing nature of conjugal unions has been strongly associated with very low fertility levels.