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By Jane Shulman
Quebec’s birth rate is among the lowest in North America today, but for hundreds of years, having large families was a staple of Quebec’s French Catholic culture. The change happened over a long period of time, and the reasons were far more complex than we have traditionally understood, according to Danielle Gauvreau.
“Quebec has a peculiar trend in regard to birth rates,” Gauvreau explained. “Like other Catholic societies, the decline was slower and later than most of the industrialized world. We knew that, but we wanted to look at when and why it eventually happened.”
Ten years ago, Gauvreau and two colleagues began the research that culminated in the release of La fécondité des Québécoises, 1870-1970, a multidisciplinary book published by Éditions Boréal last year. The book was nominated for the top book award by the Canadian Historical Association, and the Prix Jean-Charles-Falardeau for best French-language book in the Social Sciences, awarded by The Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.
Gauvreau, a sociology professor here since 1991, worked with an ethnologist and Peter Gossage, a social historian specializing in Quebec history and the family. Gossage will be joining the History department in July 2009. They measured trends with statistics, but also looked at public discourse from the press, the Catholic church, and doctors’ journals.
They also interviewed priests and former priests who counselled people, and doctors who “were on the front lines giving advice to women.” This combination of methodological approaches isn’t commonly found in the social sciences, but is one that works well to deepen our understanding of complex issues, Gauvreau said.
With industrialization, there was no longer the need for couples to have many children to work on farms and help the family, as they had for centuries. Gauvreau’s research found that women tended to be more religious than men, and it was harder for them to break away from the rules of the Catholic church because cultural identity and values were intrinsically linked to religion.
“We thought women would initiate the discussion because they were tired and their health was affected, but it wasn’t often like that,” said Gauvreau. Researchers were interested to learn how difficult it was for many couples to negotiate this issue, particularly if they were quite fertile and could easily have a baby a year.
Society seemed to be divided into those who could follow the rules easily, and those for whom the rules were a constant problem. Sometimes, Gauvreau said, there was a gender issue at play as well, with a woman pitted against her husband, her priest and her doctor, all men.
The turning point came in the 1960s, partly due to the introduction of the Pill. Gauvreau said that for the first few years after it was introduced in 1964, the Catholic church did not ban its use. Many women who had begun using contraception were reluctant to stop when the church decreed that the Pill was prohibited, and people decided it was up to them and not the church to decide how many children they would have.